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Synergy: Why Group Effects Matter Most When Facing Complexity and Uncertainty

The word syergy with a capital S.  Communicate with FINESSE!
Group effects are more important than individual personality styles when high levels of complexity and uncertainty are present.

The utility had an excellent opportunity to implement a green initiative. Energy could be created from excess digester gas at the wastewater treatment plant. There seemed to be a full range of feasible options after an engineering analysis.

“We can convert the gas and use it to either heat the building or reuse it to make the wastewater treatment process more efficient,” explained the chief engineer. “it is a 10- to 15-year payback, but the regulators love it so it is easy to get approved. It will buy us some goodwill too."

"Can we reduce the payback if we sell the energy to the electric grid?” asked the chief financial officer.

“Yes, to about five years," responded the chief engineer. "We do not have a lot of gas to sell, and we don't understand all of the maintenance issues with this option, so it could take a few more years to recuperate the initial investment."

“I love this idea,” exclaimed the chief executive officer. “We have been looking for a way to do something good for the environment. The only downside I see is that the opportunity is not quite as big as we would like. Otherwise, it looks to be all systems go."

"Wait just a minute," countered the chief operations officer. "My team tells me that there may be some unexpected consequences that we need to think about. I am also concerned about the new capital projects we are doing on the east side of the campus. That work may be too much for us to manage. Adding this project will make it even worse.”

Two weeks later, the digester gas project was dead despite the decision maker loving the idea and almost unanimous support from the executive team. The financials made sense, the community supported this type of project, and it could be easily permitted.

“There was just too much uncertainty,” the chief executive officer later explained to me. “Phil was not on board, and I did not need him working against me if things went wrong. He may be holding us back in this case, but I need his full focus on the east campus work.”


FINESSE is the mnemonic for remembering the basics of effective communication: Frame, Illustrate, Noise, Empathy, Structure, Synergy, and Ethics. The second 'S' in FINESSE stands for synergy.

Communication and change management experts often stress individual personality traits as a driving force for perception, understanding, and communication. An induvial personality tool such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or some version of the DISC method is implemented. Unfortunately, this is where understanding human effects usually end.

Group effects matter most when conveying technical information with high levels of complexity and uncertainty. There is simply too much information for decision makers to process on their own objectively. Plus, social reinforcement is needed when dealing with what are frequently felt are the most important decisions of the year (or career).

Three common group effects are provided here.


Loyalty is a prerequisite for being in the inner circle. On the one hand, loyalty assures protection of the organization from outside forces. On the other hand, loyalty is one reason why change is hard and good decisions related to complex problems are so difficult.

The Planning Fallacy

The group talks themselves into an overly optimistic and unachievable plan. A simple example is despite the technical recommendations provided to the group, a project has a budget, schedule, and quality of deliverables that exceed what has ever been delivered before.

Performance Models (Performance Culture)

In small organizations, the focus is usually on what Robert Fried calls Work Ethic (efficiency, achievement, and outcomes). As organizations get larger, other considerations are layered into the decision making, such as agency norms and agency leader (boss beliefs) considerations; individual elected officials, community, and the need for individual survival by appearing to be respectful and open to all but yet not doing certain things.

Communicating with FINESSE

Understanding group effects requires going beyond understanding the personality profile of the decision maker. Group effects require understanding the personality profiles of the decision maker’s inner circle and how that group behaves in certain situations. Two useful approaches are to focus on understanding the short-term organizational climate (i.e., spending constraints or other crises) and determine who the group sees as their go-to person for certain issues (it is not always as obvious as their titles).

The second ‘S’ in FINESSE stands for Synergy.


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