Centre for System Design
Te Whaitua Whakāhua Pūnaha

Synergia the first 20 years: a personal journey

It was 1997 and I thought it would be good if Miles, who I had known for nearly 20 years and Philip, someone who I had recently met, had a conversation. It seemed to me that there were connections to be made. Different backgrounds but common interests. All three of us were, ‘system thinkers’, convinced that health systems could be better, services could be improved, wait times could be reduced, access could be increased, if people were brought together with the right tools, to support informed conversations about the ‘whole system’. It wasn’t bad intent that was stopping improvements (Miles was always very strong in arguing that you needed to start each interaction with the assumption of good intent). People were filled with good intentions. It was the consequences of siloed conversations about segments of the system that was the challenge, and we were keen to work together to help people meet that challenge.

But things didn’t move quickly at first. We all had our own businesses and wary of giving up the independence we each cherished. So, we started small, bringing each other into our own projects on a sub-contract basis. But, there were also the Friday afternoon sessions at my office where conversations, smoothed by glasses of good wine (Miles had a large and very good wine collection), developed into plans to work more closely together. This gained momentum when I employed David Todd, a smart graduate student who was in one of my systems modelling lectures. He was too smart to just work for me however and it wasn’t long before Philip and Miles tapped into this young, eager and bright talent. This meant even more working together, sharing time and resources and now ’staff’. So, 20 years ago, in 1999, Synergia was formally born and became the entity within which we all worked, and a name that captured our initial reason for coming together; the synergies that can be created when connections are made.

With the establishment of the Company we were now well and truly connected, and the name Synergia not only attracted clients, it started to attract people who were interested in working with us. So, what began as three blokes with a common interest in systems thinking grew into a research, consulting and evaluation company with over 20 staff and three offices in Auckland, Wellington and Sydney.

Synergia began by connecting three people together. The conversations we had were all about connections, connecting people with ideas, and if you want to understand Synergia you have to understand the importance of connections. Formally we talk of systems, Systems Thinking, or System Dynamics. When stripped of its jargon its essence is about connections and the meaning people attribute to these connections. In health it is, for example, the connections between clinicians and their patients/clients, between health organisations and the communities they serve. In our own lives it is the connections we have with our family and friends, the connections we have to values we hold close. It is these connections that matter, and as a consultant and researcher I have spent a lot of time trying to understand them better, understand how they develop and change over time and how to intervene so that they can be purposefully changed for the better. Most importantly of all it is the connections I make with the people I am working with that determine whether or not I develop that understanding.

Throughout these 20 years I have endeavoured to bring rigour to the concept of connections, continuing a long-standing interest in the system sciences that began when I was introduced to ’systemic family therapy’ in the 1970’s, and continued as I developed international connections to system thinkers around the world. Systems Thinking was the formal language that described the common interest Philip, Miles and I had, and has always been at the core of Synergia’s approach to its work. Systems Thinking may have a formal language but as an organisation we have been informal in its use and now, as I move into my next phase of work within Synergia and we have an increasing number of young ‘David Todd’s working with us, we want to ensure that the legacy is not lost. We want to capture the 20 years of experience learning how to make our initial idealism work in a pragmatic world. As the last of the three founders still working in Synergia (Philip sadly passed away in 2016 from a brain tumour and Miles, semi-retired, acts as mentor to a number of aspiring individuals and small NGOs), I am now on a mission to capture this experience and bring it together in a form that is useful, not just for staff in Synergia but also for those I have had the privilege of working with over the last 20 years. Supporting this mission of mine Synergia has established the Centre for System Design (C4SD), an entity within Synergia, focused on bringing together the knowledge and experience we have gained over the last 20 years. We are pulling together case stories, modelling examples, education and training materials, and even writing a book. We are also in the process of putting all this material onto a website (https://synergia.consulting/centre-for-system-design/) so that it is freely available to anyone with an interest. The website is in its early development but will grow in the coming months and, if we are successful, become a useful resource for anyone who wants to develop a greater understanding of the core ideas within systems thinking and have access to a range of tools to apply these ideas within the health and social service sectors.

Paul Simon was a great musician, and his music often formed the sonic background to our initial Friday ‘wine conversations’, but he was very wrong when he sang “I am a rock, I am an island” (showing my age with this example). None of us are islands. We are all connected. Connected to each other, connected to important ideas, connected to place. Understanding and nurturing these connections is the real value offered by Systems Thinking and I hope that the resources we will be putting up on the C4SD website in the coming months will be of interest and of some help.