Negative Synergy

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.118 April 2001

Negative synergy is alive and (not) well. Smart individuals gather and produce a bad result. It happens often, and it wastes time, money, and people. There are, however, things IT managers can and should do about it.

Synergy is when several people gather and do something that's better than what they could do individually. The term has been used and misused enough to create cynicism, but synergy is real.

Negative synergy is that inexplicable phenomenon that can happen in meetings. I have seen it too often. Smart, hardworking, conscientious people gather, waste time, and make a bad decision. Afterward, the participants admit individually that the result of the meeting was a bad decision. How can every individual know that the decision was bad, yet as a group agree to it?

There are many causes of negative synergy. One is poor meeting fundamentals. The people involved don't have an agenda, are not sure why they are in a meeting, and attempt to tackle complex issues without preparation. Another cause is a lack of safety in the meeting. The participants don't feel safe to say what they truly feel and vote their conscience. Their desire to be part of the group pushes them to agree with what they think the group will decide. Finally, the meeting may be based on a false foundation. The people are deciding something over which they have neither the authority to decide nor the ability to execute. The resulting decision is meaningless, and it's probably a bad decision.

The result of negative synergy is waste. The meeting is a waste of time for everyone involved, and time is money (literally, that's not just a cliche). If the bad decision is implemented, look out. The worst part is the waste of people. People leave these meetings frustrated. They know something is wrong with how they conduct meetings and make decisions, but cannot see it and fix it. They cannot stand to participate in it, so they quit. Some quit and leave, while others quit and stay.

There are things we can do to help fight negative synergy. We should start by addressing basic meeting practices. Would it be best for an individual to handle the item the meeting is about to address? If so, don't hold a meeting -- problem solved. If it is appropriate for a group, employ time-proven meeting techniques. Have an agenda everyone agrees to ahead of time, prepare all participants, use an impartial facilitator, use ground rules, stay focused, do your business, make your decision, and move on.

Second, hold safe meetings. The facilitator should poll the participants in an anonymous manner to determine if they feel safe to speak and vote. If not, stop the meeting. Address the issues of safety and trust first. If people at work are afraid, nothing else they try to do will matter or work properly.

Third, use the false foundation test. We do this last because we can have an agenda and safety, but still be having a meeting based on a false foundation. Apply this test after the meeting basics are in place and the facilitator has established a safe environment.

1. State: "We are here to do (fill in the blank)."

2. Ask: "Do we possess the necessary knowledge and authority to do (fill in the blank)?"

If the answer to 2 is no, go back to 1 and change (fill in the blank). If the answer is yes, conduct the meeting and allow positive synergy to work.

Negative synergy is real; we've all seen it. It is our own fault (there is no monster lurking in the halls tricking us into this practice). We all have the authority to eliminate it, or we can continue to complain quietly and allow it to continue.

Dwayne Phillips has worked as a software and systems engineer with the US government since 1980. He recently wrote *The Software Project Manager's Handbook, Principles that Work at Work* ( ), published by the IEEE Computer Society. He can be reached at Thanks for comments on facilitation and safety from Steve Smith of .