March 5, 2024

Analysys vs Synthesis

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how we engage with the world around us. As someone who’s eternally curious and drawn to community, I am learning there’s a lot of nuance in how we go about becoming better humans. This applies in a lot of areas of my life right now, but especially in my consulting with design system teams. Almost every problem they are facing can be solved with a mindset shift—from analysis to synthesis.

Compare these two excerpts: one is an excerpt from the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and one is a summary from an old lecture by Dr. Russell Ackoff (citations and links below).

From Robin Wall Kimmerer

In moving from a childhood in the woods to the university I had unknowingly shifted between worldviews, from a natural history of experience, in which I knew plants as teachers and companions to whom I was linked with mutual responsibility, into the realm of science. The questions scientists raised were not Who are you?” but What is it?” No one asked plants, What can you tell us?” The primary question was How does it work?”

From Dr. Russell Ackoff

In the Renaissance era, when the science as we know it today was born, a scientific inquiry method called Analysis was developed. Analysis comes naturally to us. Just watch kids breaking new things and being curious about the parts. The understanding of something follows a three step process in analytical thinking:

  1. Take it apart
  2. Understand (function, role, behavior) what the parts do
  3. Assemble the understanding of the parts into understanding of the whole

Our culture is built on analytical thinking. For example, when you go to school to study business, you don’t study business. You study marketing, finance, organization, logistics, etc. The assumption is that if you understand how the parts work you can assemble them together to gain the understanding of the whole. Corporations are run in a similar fashion. Running of the organization is divided into different parts-by products, geography, function, etc. and then you aggregate running of the parts into running of the whole-corporation.

Analytical thinking teaches us how” and it never teaches us why”. It gives you knowledge but not understanding. The understanding comes from Synthesis which explains why”. The explanation of a system always lie outside the system. For example, how do you explain why the engine is in the front of the car? The engine replaced the horse which used to be in the front of the carriage and soon what we call a car today was referred to as the horseless carriage. That is why the engine is located in the front of a car. You could not have figured this out by applying analytical thinking.

Systems thinking is a new way of thinking which focuses on synthesis instead of analysis. Synthetic thinking has three steps which are exactly the opposite of analysis. To understand something using synthesis you:

  1. Ask what is this a part of?” instead of taking the parts apart. You identify the containing whole. For example, to understand a car you identify the transportation system and to understand a corporation you identify the economy, etc.
  2. Understand the behavior of the containing whole instead of understanding behavior and properties of the parts. For example, understand the transportation system and the economic system re car and corporation respectively.
  3. Dis-aggregate the understanding of the containing whole by identifying the function of the system you are trying to explain instead of aggregating the understanding of parts into the understanding of the whole. For example, understand the role a car plays in the transportation system and the role a corporation plays in the economic system.

A system is a whole and is defined by its function in a larger system. Every system is contained in a larger system and its role in that larger system defines it. For example, a car is defined by its function of transportation in privacy. An essential property of a system is that it can not be divided into independent parts and its properties are derived out of interaction of its parts and not the action of its parts taken separately. For example, what makes a car is the interaction of the motor, engine, steering, etc. If you take a system apart it looses all its essential properties.

Why Synthesis?

Both of these excerpts have the same basic underlying assumption: it’s not enough to know what, we need to know why.

Wall Kimmerer’s experience in going away to college to study Botany exposed her to a wild shift in worldview. She had grown up living as an equal with the natural world around her. In that first conversation with a professor of Botany, the reality of a more scientific (analytical) view was shocking to her. Science was going to have her taking plants apart in an attempt to understand them while she was more interested in understanding their place in the bigger ecosystem.

Ackoff’s lecture calls out this shift more explicitly. He defines analysis as the taking apart of things in order to understand how the bits and pieces function. Synthesis looks outside the thing we want to understand to see it’s place in the bigger picture.

Applying this to Design Systems

When I first engage with a new client, I have no context. In order to understand the design system an organization has (or wants to have), my first step is to understand the organization. I ask questions like:

  • Tell me about the structure of your organization?
  • How would you describe the culture of your company?
  • Describe the landscape of products your company offers.
  • How is your success measured by the organization?

This is necessary because it helps me to understand why an organization has or needs a design system. No amount of digging into their design assets or coded component libraries can answer this for me—that’s like looking at a car engine in order to understand why it is located in the front of a car.

Analysis is not useless. Much of what we do in design systems is refactoring digital experiences down into their pieces and parts so that we can construct other digital experiences in cohesive ways. However, the hard parts of systems work are in understanding the why, and we’ll never get there with analysis.

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