Synthetic thinking


I’m reading Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind which has me nodding with my whole self on every page. One of the phrases I came across jumped out at me. Pink describes ‘R-Directed Thinking’ as “a form of thinking and an attitude to life that is characteristic of the right hemisphere of the brain – simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual, and synthetic.”

It was the word synthetic that caused a multiple word pile up in my brain. While I know it means thinking which derives from the process of synthesis, it immediately had a negative connotation in my mind. Synthetic shirts, for example, which began to appear in the 1960s when I was a (very) small child were never a patch on the pure cotton variety. Synthetic was always a poor substitute for the real thing.

So I reached for the Oxford English Dictionary and looked up the word:

“Made by chemical synthesis, especially to imitate a natural product” originated in the 17th century, based on Greek suntithenai ‘place together’.

That’s more like it. Creativity usually depends on the unexpected juxtaposition of two or more disparate ideas: a placing together which no-one else has thought of before. The notion owes a lot to Koestler’s concept of ‘bisociation’ back in 1964. Dyson’s hoover plus ball concept springs to mind as a recent example. This synthetic thinking is what innovative businesses thrive on.

The Sony Walkman (remember those?) was a revolutionary innovation of its time, enabled by technology. Indeed, Akio Morita suggested that the product was born because it could be born – the market at the time would never have been able to ask for such a gadget. This illustrates synthetic thinking at its bravest: coming up with something that no-one knows they want. William Blake, writing in the 19th century, puts it succinctly:

“Man’s desires are limited by his perceptions. No-one can desire what he has not perceived.”

Who knew they needed a Walkman, an iPod, a Kindle, an iPhone until they were invented? Such design decisions demand significant risk-taking.  As Hamel and Prahalad (1997) point out, only creating what the market says it wants is missing a huge amount of potential. ‘Synthetic’ in this context is not a poor substitute, but can be infinitely superior (if you’re prepared to take a sizeable leap of faith).


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