A synergy is an interaction or coordination between two or more elements or organizations to produce a combined effect greater – or less – than the sum of their separate effects.1 A synergy is a particular type of interaction between parts; it is a nonlinear interaction where the specific way the parts interact creates an effect greater or less than the simple sum of their effects in isolation.
Synergistic interactions are pervasive in our world. Examples of synergies include ants working together in a colony to achieve result far greater than the sum of their activities in isolation,2 two drugs having a combined effect that is greater than each taken insolation,3 or two companies merging to create a more efficient combined enterprise through the combination of their capabilities and resources.4
Synergies can be understood with reference to linear and nonlinear relations. A nonlinear relation can be understood as one that in some way adds or subtracts value above that of the components due to the specific way that they are combined or arranged.
Nonlinear relations can be best interpreted when contrasted with linear relations. A linear relationship is one where the properties of the elements do not change due to the connections. If we have two apples, and we create a relationship between them by placing them side by side on a table this connection will not affect the properties of each apple; the properties remain invariant. Because of this, the relationship does not change, add or subtract value from the combined organization. Linear relations define the connections and arrangement between objective properties of things – what is also called a primary quality of an entity.5 If an object’s properties are objective, they do not change depending on the context or connection with other things. For example, the solidity, extension of, or the molecular motion within a substance are objective; they do not change depending on the context.
If we take two or more things with these objective properties when we combine them their properties will not change. Thus the combined organization will be simply a summation of the original part’s properties. There are many examples of linear relations such as a group of unassociated people waiting at a train station, there is no particular relationship or organization between them; thus the overall organization is simply the summation of its parts. Likewise, a pile of bricks has no special relation between the parts and thus gain the collection is nothing more than a linear combination of the components in isolation.
A nonlinear relationship between things is one where the interaction between them adds or subtracts value from the overall combined organization. With a nonlinear relation the parts interact in a particular fashion to create a combined organization that is different in some way from the two parts taken in isolation. A nonlinear relation involves an interaction between the subjective properties of the parts. Unlike an objective property that is exhibited under all conditions, a subjective property is one that is only present under certain environmental condition – what may be called a secondary quality.6
Color is an example of a subjective or secondary quality; objects do not have color as intrinsic objective properties. The sea and the sky are not innately blue in the way that we perceive them, nor are other things,7 they simply have atoms absorbing and emitting photons at particular wavelengths. To get the phenomenon of color we need not only the object but also the specific visual system and cognitive processing of humans or other creatures. Thus the color of an object is an interaction between the two; the object has the potential to induce the effective of color but it is only manifest when in relation to a creature with the appropriate photoreceptive system. The color of an object is subjective, it is not manifest in all contexts, it is only exhibited in particular contexts given the right interaction.
Another example would be sexual reproduction or love, each partner in the relation has the potential to produce another creature or to fall in love, but the potential in only actuated given the particular interaction with another member of its species. Likewise in a chemical reaction, certain substance have the potential to react violently, but only given the particular interaction with another specific chemical. With a synergy the component parts have some subjective potential and that potential is released in the interaction to add or subtract value from the combined organization. Synergistic relations involve a bidirectional, mutual interaction between the parts, the mutual effect of components or systems on each other. This relation can be thought of as feedback between the components as there is an influence that is reciprocal in nature. Which is in contrast to a linear relation that may only be unidirectional.8
Nonlinear synergistic relations require specific subjective conditions or context. Linear relationships are more objective meaning they will hold under a wide range of circumstances. Linear relations are much more robust or flexible in that we can change things around and still get the same results. In contrast, with synergistic interactions results may change widely given small changes in the arrangement of the organization. These linear combinations have special features to them, what are called in mathematics, commutativity, associativity and distribution.9
The commutative rule says we can swap things around and still get the same combined outcome.10 For example, with the people waiting for the train, it makes little difference who was next to who because they had no special relation between them. Now if we added specific synergistic relationships between some of the parts – say this was a group of school children who all had particular friends within the group that they like talking to – now it would matter how we arrange them. If they are all arranged in a specific manner so as to be beside their friends, then we would get a very different overall outcome – lots of people talking – than if they were arranged in another way so that they were not close to their friends. The associative rule says that it does not matter how we group things. For example, if we had a set of unordered bricks we could group them into equal piles or have one pile with a lot and another with just a few bricks, it makes no difference to the overall combined organization because of the linear relations between them. However, organizations with nonlinear synergistic relations are not like this. A company, for example, has department groupings that enable it to work efficiently. If we recombined and regrouped the whole organization in a random fashion, the whole organization would be significantly affected as productivity would be greatly reduced. Finally, the distributive rule, in a general sense, states that doing something – performing an operation – to the combined organization is the same as doing it to the different parts in isolation. Watering one’s two seedbeds of tomatoes separately would have the same effect as watering them both together as one seedbed. However, if we were to do this with a system that had nonlinear synergistic relations, the same would not be true. For example telling each partner in a relationship separately that the other is cheating on them would not have the same effect as telling them both together.
Whole and Parts
Within linear systems, because the properties of the elements do not change depending on the relations and context we can use these rules to deal with complex phenomena by breaking them up. We can simplify things by decomposing them, treating the subsystems in isolation and then recombining them to get the same result as if we had dealt with the system as a whole. We can take for example a math problem and distribute it out into smaller parts and then add all the pieces back together to get an account of the whole. Likewise, we could, for example, paint our house by breaking the process up into stages. We can do this because there is no particular relationship between the activities; by performing each one in isolation, we can complete the whole.
Whenever there is some form of synergistic relation in the system we can not do this, because these “special” relations that add or subtract value to the organization may be lost when decomposing and rearranging the system. Because synergistic relations are only present under certain circumstances, if we break things up or move things around arbitrarily we lose them, and the outcome will not be the same as before we performed the operation. With a linear relationship – where the interaction between the parts does not add or subtract value from the whole – the inputs and outputs to the system are proportional. Like hitting a ball with a bat, the ball moves off at a velocity that is directly related to the force that it was hit with. In contrast with nonlinear synergistic relations the input and output can be disproportional because the relationships between the parts can add or subtract significant value. For example, if we invested money in a company that had many positive synergies, where the team was working very well together, we may well get a hugely disproportionate return on our investment.