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Are you a Synthesizer or an Editor?

What’s a fundamental difference between a Steve Jobs and a Bill Gates, a Leonardo da Vinci and a Michelangelo? or a Philo Farnsworth and a David Sarnoff?


When we think of pioneers of industry and creative geniuses, we usually focus on their enduring impact on everyday life of large populations, or the tipping points they may have driven in their era, etc. But step back a moment and think of them all in a different way. Ponder what their true strengths were/are with respect to the end-to-end creation-to-delivery process itself…what aspect of their persona, their core essence, was it that was strong enough to differentiate them from millions of others in their respective directions?. Here is one man’s answer for your contemplation.


The creation and successful delivery of anything new and engaging is inherently complex and varied, however, I’ve discovered an inalienable reality:


ALL ‘Creations’ boil down to essentially 2 fundamentally different, and equally essential, activities:

  1. Synthesis
  2. Editing

Therefore: Synthesis + Editing = Realized Innovation


Everything else involved, irrespective of the subject-matter, the domain, the medium, or even the scale, share these two conceptually different yet critical phases. In addition, the phase ordering is also fixed. So what brought me to this indisputable (some may say obvious) realization? basic pattern recognition on my part. After devoting many years of observation and participation in creative processes spanning an array of physical and logical technologies, as well as business model developments, and even aesthetic endeavors, this 2 phase pattern has become evident to me in every single case – a simple truth so elegant and rational that at first it may seem trivial, but don’t stop there! Upon further reflection, we can benefit substantially from putting this understanding to proper use. But first, let’s clarify the terms and the importance of their ordering so we’re communicating crisply.


What is “Synthesis” in this context?


Synthesis is the act of internally positing, and then communicating to others, something genuinely “new”. Of course that begs the question “what constitutes ‘New’?”. Rather than spiraling around that question (see also: the endless debates about what is Patentable vs. what is “obvious to one skilled in the art”, and therefore, non-Patentable, etc.) for the purposes of this discussion, let’s just accept that ‘New’ means something that has not been proposed or communicated in specific previously. Returning to the topic of Synthesis, popular American colloquialisms seeking to express the seed of all synthesis include the familiar; ‘light-bulb over the Inventor’s head’, ‘flash of insight’, ‘moment of clarity’, etc., you get the idea. Synthesis is Genesis, it is the very seed of anything new, it is by definition a potential, not yet achieving a kinetic state.


In summary, the act of synthesis is the nucleus of a new creation. Without synthesis, only the prior exists. With synthesis, a new potential ‘creation’ may be brought into existence. But that is not what synthesis does. Synthesis yields a potentially executable hypothesis…however, in abstentea from Editing; Synthesis delivers nothing but theoretical benefits!


What is “Editing” in this context?


The less esoteric, but still fundamentally necessary, phase is what I call Editing. As is self-evident, editing is the act of modification, of purification, of transmutation from “the thought experiment” that synthesized the new thing, to the real-world of action, collaboration, implementation and delivery. It is the forward momentum which converts the potential of the Synthesis into the kinetic state of ‘Editing’. Effective editing ‘releases the figure from the stone’ of the sculptor. Editing is the Michel Angelo to De Vinci’s mental ruminations of things yet to be (his Synthesis). Consider Da Vinci’s synthesis of the concept of vertical take-off flight, as communicated in his many sketches of what we would consider the World’s first Helicopter. Yet his synthesis thereof remained simply a conceptual potential until the 20th century Engineering “Editors” were ultimately able to convert this potential into the realized kinetic of the World’s first successful flying Helicopters – innovative Synthesis followed by superb Editing (albeit in this case over the span of centuries).


Take as a second, more recent example; the brilliant Synthesis of the unknown inventor Philo Farnsworth, who arguably envisioned the key technologies required to produce the first functional real-time image transmission apparatus (what we now call “Television”). In contrast with the equally brilliant (if not also malevolent) Editing of David Sarnoff, who, as the ruthless and technically proficient head of RCA was able to apply Farnsworth’s synthesized ideas and forcefully edit them into a practical form that not only launched an industry, but transformed the world over time as well.


Why does Synthesis always lead Editing?


Clearly there is a lead-lag relationship between Synthesis and Editing, because the former begets the latter. Editing is the vessel that carries the process from concept-to-reality, giving body to the sole of concept. It is that crucial aggregation of the multitude of small thoughts and practical actions that continuously improve the synthesized idea until it can see the light of day in observable reality. If “Necessity (Market need) is the Mother of Invention (Synthesis)”, then I propose that “Editing (making it happen) is the Father of Invention (Synthesis)”.


Let’s consider another anecdotal example of the Synthezier+Editor dyad, in this case, the young Steve Jobs as Synthesizer to young Bills Gates’ Editor: Steve, then an unknown, was synthesizing his vision for a world in which not only did everyone have access to personal computing (a common grass-roots driver for techies of that era) but more importantly, they would have an enjoyable and captivating experience in the process – people would LIKE the experience of using their personal computers and even non-tech-focused users would be inspired. That was a revolutionarily creative concept for the day and Steve definitely had it. The whole “Macintosh Way” (see also: Guy Kawasaki’s endless writings on this…) stemmed from Steve’s persona and synthesis of an as yet non-existent generation of computing environments, and the associated Apple cult culture which he evangelized. Ironically, it took the editing genius of then young Bill Gates to fully blossom and flourish in the then nascent market for Operating Systems. We’re all familiar with the history and iconoclastic rivalry which ensued, but peel the hubbub away for just long enough to recognize the perfection of this Synthesizer+Editor pairing in the annals of our world. Gates was able to exploit Steve’s synthesized vision of the GUI (Graphical User Interface …does anybody besides me remember when that was a NEW term?) and editorially fuse it with the very utilitarian world that was DOS (Disk Operating System…again, can you believe the word “Disk” used to be directly tied to the OS?…but I digress) to share with the world Microsoft Windows. The rest is an historical cliché so I won’t bother.


No doubt, the real computing history buffs will argue at this point over the fact that Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) actually synthesized / invented the first Mouse, the first GUI, and many other computing and usability innovations, not Steve and his cohort Andy. I agree in principal of course, but, team Xerox PARC were synthesizers in isolation and entirely failed to connect with the appropriate editors directly to bring their innovations to fruition. Instead, they essentially fueled Steve’s inclusion of their ideas into the larger fabric of his own synthetic vision, namely, the world of engaging computation which we referred to earlier – that was Steve’s baby and he raised it well over the decades don’t you think? We won’t diverge into the many blind alleys Steve also synthesized for himself (e.g. Lisa, Newton, NeXT, etc.). History smiles on Steve’s memory now with a long trail of positive outcomes from these many synthesize, then edit with teams of skilled natural editors, then re-synthesize cycles throughout his fabled lifetime (e.g. Pixar, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad…you get the idea).


Why does this matter to you right now?, to your team’s effectiveness?, to your career, even your happiness?


Because an understanding and appreciation for where your own natural talents and abilities fit within this fundamental hypothesis is a powerfully rewarding differentiator for you; it can guide many of your important decisions, and can be used as a litmus test under otherwise confounding circumstances. When properly applied to your own self-assessment, your ability to objectively define yourself as being inherently inclined toward Synthesis, or Editing respectively, can spare you untold career miss-fires and precious life-span wasted in abhorrently pursuing the wrong one of these two very different paths. It can also provide you with an internal scale upon which to balance the skills and abilities of your team, your company, even your personal relationships.


Natural Synthesizers have a wonderful affinity for Natural Editors, and vice versa. This is a good thing and nearly always mutually beneficial rather than being mutually competitive or destructive. Assembling teams with cognizance of this factor, about yourself, your management, and your team candidates, is bound to improve the resulting team’s performance and mutual loyalties as well. By striking an effective balance between these characteristics in the social networks within which you interact, you will become far more effective and far more appealing as a potential collaborator as well. The power of identifying these complementary natural abilities is well chronicled; my point is simply that actively thinking of yourself and those with whom you surround yourself


It’s only natural for us all to aspire to being talented in both regimes. It’s what we’re taught and lead to believe from many sources throughout our lifetimes…but therein lays the folly! Part of my hypothesis is that while we all possess a level of affinity and appreciation for both ‘poles’ of this tantalizing philosophical dyad, we are – like it or not – only ever going to be truly consummate in one and not the other. Take it or leave it, this has been my empirical experience for many years. The art of self-discovery is then to determine, as early on as possible, which path we are more attuned to and then passionately, yet intelligently, pursue it, leverage it, BE it in practice. There is no “better or worse” in this dyad, if for no other reason than the simple fact that both poles are essential to any creative forward progress at all!


Let’s consider a familiar model for this fork in road from common experience to help clarify why it’s so important for us to be able to correctly answer the question “Am I fundamentally a Synthesizer?, or an Editor?”. In music, we have ‘Composers’ and ‘Performers’ (Synthesizers and Editors). A gifted composer can illuminate our minds and spirits, driving emotions and even national pride, by simply visualizing and communicating a new combination of audio frequencies in a sequence – yet, it takes the virtuoso performer to convert these theoretical representations on paper into the moving and memorable moments of performance which we all carry in our heads by reason of their fantastic interpretation and delivery of said audio frequencies in said sequences. No composers means no musical inspiration, similarly, no performers also means no musical interpretation. So is one ‘more important’ than the other? Hardly! They are inextricably linked and must be equally developed, respected and appreciated as a result.


Make the small jump to the world of technology and it becomes easy to see the parallels. The Product Management crafter of business models and related product roadmaps by definition needs to be strong on synthesis, and supported by skillful editors (often Business Analysts) whom are capable of the editing necessary to deliver actionable Business Requirements to the software development resources. In turn, the synthesis of appropriate technical solutions begins with some form of applicable technology structures, conceived (synthesized) by the appropriate Technology Architect, and then skillfully and meticulously edited through the software development process (via SW Developers, DBA’s, Testers, etc.), to enable the cross-functional team to successfully deliver an innovative business solution (insightfully driven by actual market needs rather than simply dictated by summing-up the recent complaints of end-users; but this topic will be explored in a separate post on Product Management and the role of Market vs. User Requirements…stay tuned) that provides for the appropriate levels of quality, security, performance, scale and change flexibility, all while conforming to pragmatic total cost of ownership and operational constraints.


By paying attention to this insight on synthesis vs. editing, a wise organizational leader will establish and positively reinforce resources of both types, in the right positions, arranged in commentary roles and armed with the proper natural affinities for these respective roles, such that the resulting organization operates ‘smoothly’ by nature and not by ‘discipline’. In such cases, the participants will find it challenging intellectually (not emotionally) and rewarding / fulfilling at a personal level (not merely financially) to collaborate together to get successive missions accomplished. If you’ve been professionally fortunate, you know exactly what I’m referring to here because you’ve experienced it yourself, probably without even realizing why some organizations just seem to function ‘better’ than others.


Conversely, the lesser experienced organizational leader will make all the usual judgmental failures by ignoring the Synthesizers vs. Editors factor entirely, weighting role decisions on lots of other contravening factors (e.g. politics, pay scales, esoteric credentials, and egos). The resulting randomness of distribution of Synthesizers and Editors will nearly inevitably encounter all sorts of unintentional friction, gridlock and melancholy, because the requisite balance between synthesis and editing (in every discipline of an organization, not only in technology) has not been attained, or even properly considered. Unfortunately, this is far more the rule than the exception and I’m sure many of you recognize and relate to these feelings from less than fulfilling work experiences of your own.


There have of course been innumerable texts and schools of thought, over decades of organizational development study, devoted to the concept of matching the “right people/Skills” to the “right roles” and the need is obvious in the extreme. The goal of this piece has been to propose a simplified lens through which to view and evaluate the natural ‘fit’ of individuals to roles in the key dimension defined herein: Synthesizers vs. Editors. Hopefully you will find value in this point of view as you evaluate yourself, your organization, your next opportunity, etc.


Which brings us full circle to the question:
Are you a Synthesizer or an Editor?


As with all behavioral metrics, there is no “right or wrong”, “better or worse” classification being proposed here, it’s simply a pragmatic matter of evaluating which side of the balance you have the strongest affinity for, and then weighting that factor properly when making decisions (for yourself, or your staff, or even your entire organization). We’ve all come to see that knowing oneself is a prerequisite for being able to know others, and thus be capable of leading them effectively. The hypothesis here seeks to help you examine your own strengths and weaknesses and decide for yourself whether you are fundamentally an “S” or an “E”, and then align yourself with the appropriate balance of others to attain the consistent and rewarding working environment we all seek.


Happily, Synthesizers and Editors often naturally form complementary work relationships (when given the right role-based structures within which to be measured and rewarded) for the obvious reason that one will benefit from the work of the other while both can feel ‘special’ about their respective contributions. This is so much more fulfilling that struggling and artificial competitions of miss-matched contributors, which often devolve into intricate political or debate-driven organizations that lose the focus and innovative velocity possible when S’s and E’s are all properly lined-up for action!


Dear Readers: Let’s hear what you have to say on this subject! Please take a moment right now to share your perspective on the topic of Synthesizers & Editors and let’s open the conversation to the larger community.



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