Stafford Beer's Syntegration as a Renascence of the Ancient
Greek Agora in Present-day Organizations
(Malik Management Zentrum St. Gallen, Switzerland
Abstract: Over some forty years, Stafford Beer (1926 - 2002)
has published a steady stream of seminal books and papers in which he
has applied cybernetic science to organizational problems. In all of
these he has explained underlying principles and developed new
theories and recorded a great variety of practical applications. In
his last book, published in 1994 [Beer, 1994b]
he presents a cybernetic approach to knowledge management within large
groups of about 30 people, called Syntegration(®). Syntegration is a
structured, non-hierarchical process for highly effective and
efficient dialogue that leads to much faster, much more informed
outcomes and aligns people behind the resulting decisions, messages
and action plans with a high chance for implementation. Since its
invention this powerful method has been very successfully applied more
then 200 times in the organization of normative, directional, and
strategic planning, and other creative decision processes. The
underlying model is a regular icosahedron. This has 30 struts, each of
which represents a person. Each of the 12 edges represents a topic
that is being discussed. An internal network of interactions is
created by a set of iterative protocols. A group organized like this
is an ultimate statement of participatory democracy, since each role
is indistinguishable from any other. There is no hierarchy, no top, no
bottom, no sideways. Beer illustrates how continued dynamic
interaction between persons causes ideas and resolutions to hum around
the sphere, which reverberates into a kind of group
consciousness. Mathematical analysis of the structure shows how the
process is determined by the even spread of synergy. The aim of this
article is to present to managers and their advisors a new planning
method that captures the native genius of the organization in a
non-political and non-hierarchical way. That produces the best
possible results in the shortest possible time from the largest
possible number of people, by making optimized use of the knowledge
these people have. Knowledge management at its best.
Keywords: Syntegration, Team Syntegrity, managerial cybernetics,
Stafford Beer, Ross W. Ashby, synergy
"Master and slave, squire and servant, boss and employee, ruling
classes and proletariat ... the notion of hierarchy is endemic to the human
experience of social system. And yet it seems never to suffice as an organizing
principle" [Beer, 1994a: 3]
These are the opening phrases to Stafford Beer's seminal work on
participatory democracy based on applied cybernetics. In his book
"Beyond Dispute: The Invention of Team Syntegrity" [Beer,
1994], Beer proposes a three-dimensional geometric model for knowledge
dissemination in large groups, that has its provenance in a multitude
of different sciences including biology, psychology, mathematics and
This icosahedron model has no hierarchy, no top, no bottom and no sideways
and can be regarded as a highly pragmatic and innovative tool for knowledge
sharing, consensus building and conflict resolution whenever a large number
of people is involved: in business, in politics and in every societal body,
panel or committee [Bavelas, 1952]. Hence the Syntegration®
can serve as an effective driving belt for the transfer of Agora-style
thinking into contemporary planning and decision making.
Figure 1: The icosahedron, communication structure for a
The Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, the focus of political, commercial,
administrative and social activity, the religious and cultural centre and
the seat of justice. Dating back to the 6th century B.C. the Agora has
witnessed countless convocations, reflecting the true meaning of democracy,
of governance by the people. Politicians, philosophers and citizens have
gathered to discuss issues of common interest and relevance. Dialogues
were held and disputes were fought. But the Greeks were at a huge advantage
in comparison with modern day interlocutors as they convened against the
background of a world much less complex than the one which is host to our
present global village. Political, economic and societal systems and their
subsystems were by far less interlinked and embedded in each other whereas
the delimination of today's systems and subsystems has become more and
Complex problems require complex thinking in order to find accurate,
holistic and sustainable solutions. [Ashby 1952] proposes,
that only variety can absorb variety, hence control in a system can only
be obtained if the variety of the controller is at least as great as the
variety of the system to be controlled.
In practice this requires the integration of the entire knowledge of
a system that is concealed in the brains of its members with a minimum
amount of time and management. Syntegration offers a highly intelligent
design that combines the effectiveness of small groups with the efficiency
of large gatherings in terms of knowledge dissemination.
This article analyses the prerequisites for a resurgence of the Greek
idea of problem solving by dialogue within the Agora and proposes the Syntegration
model to transfer Athenian thinking into modern organizations, communities
and societies and to get Beyond Dispute.
2 The Origins
In Beers Syntegration® model, effective communication is implicit
in the structure on which the communication is based. It comes into being
automatically and necessarily if the Syntegration structure is used. The
participants in a Syntegration (the term is derived from the words synergy
and integration) are free to discuss what in their view needs to be discussed.
The structure, however, lays down for them who discusses what with whom,
when, for how long and in what role.
Beer found the ideal structure in the icosahedron, the most complex
of the five platonic solids. The icosahedron is a regular polyhedron having
20 faces, 12 edges and 30 struts. America's 'Leonardo da Vinci of the modern
age', Richard Buckminster Fuller had discovered even before Beer that this
structure contains Nature's principle of construction: the equilateral
Figure 2: Fuller's Geodesic Dome, constructed in Montreal
Fuller had shown that the equilateral triangle is the most efficient
and robust structure that can be used to connect and construct things.
He gave practical proof of this by erecting dome structures (geodesic domes)
constructed in the 60-degree style of the equilateral triangle that were
not only many times larger than domes of conventional construction but
were also many times more robust and efficient in terms of resource input.
The revolutionary idea that Beer had was to use the same structure for
efficiency and robustness in communication. He placed the topics for discussion
at the twelve vertices of the icosahedron and the people at its thirty
struts. With this model, thirty brains are - as it were- networked together
in such a way that they operate as one joint brain that is that much more
powerful. Each of the topics that relate to an opening question is covered
by a group of the optimum size of five people. In this case the topics
are networked via the people, because each person is involved in a number
of topics. As well as his or her role as a team member for two topics,
each person also performs in two other roles: as critic for two other topics
and as observer for four others. This means that each topic is not only
discussed by five members but is also added to by five critics and observed
by up to ten observers.
Figure 3: Five people discuss one topic, 30 people discuss
3 The Syntegration Protocol
Prior to the start of a Syntegration® an Opening Question must be
formed that represents the issue upon which participants will focus their
best thinking, discussion and debate. An example could be: "What must
we do to become a highly efficient and effective organization and benchmark
for our industry"? The participants in a Syntegration (usually a group
of between 15 and 40 people) are typically selected to represent a broad
group of stakeholders within an organization or amongst organizations.
Participants represent different levels within the organization, and can
be subject matter experts, leaders, managers, employees, partners, customers,
clients, etc. The participants provide the 'requisite variety' and critical
mass of individuals necessary to make much more informed decisions.
The Syntegration, designed as an intensive workshop of 2-3,5 days, has
no predetermined agenda. The participants themselves set the agenda at
the very beginning of the Syntegration as no one of the group would be
able to define what everybody else finds relevant to discuss in regard
to the Opening Question. This agenda setting requires about half a day
and consists of different steps within an Importance Filter that
leads the group via Brainstorming, Marketplace and Consolidation from some
hundred individual statements down to twelve key agenda items.
The specific number of topics is important - not too many to lose track
of things during the discussions and not too few to under represent the
complexity of the Opening Question. Then each participant is being asked
to bring these topics into an order of preference against the background
of the question to which topics one can contribute the most. Finally a
computer program based on an algorithmic calculation selects among some
1040 possibilities of allocation of participants and topics
within the icosahedral structure the best option.
Each participant is being assigned Member in two Topic Teams, Critic
in two other Topic Teams and Observer in up to four more Topic Teams. Whereas
the Members are responsible for their topic and have the task to arrive
at clear actions in regard to their topic by the end of the Syntegration®,
the Critics are responsible for criticising the content that is being developed
by the Members, and for making the process a self-managing one.
Figure 4: One of twelve team meetings including team members,
critics and observers, being supported by a facilitator
Observers, finally, may not intervene at all during the discussions
and may only listen. They play, however, an important role as networkers
of knowledge: They take on what is being discussed in the teams they observe
and carry the new insights and ideas into their own groups if that information
is relevant for the discussions. And, because they are not allowed to speak
during the time that they are gathering this information, Observers filter
their own thoughts and responses instead of speaking them aloud immediately.
These different roles of Member, Critic and Observer ensure that everyone
has the same rights and opportunities to participate in the debate: Positional,
hierarchical or rhetorical dominance that prevails in the organizational
context and often inhibit equality of thought are not being totally neglected
but are being dampened very effectively through the protocol.
When a Topic Team meets, there is at least one representative of all
other 11 Topic Teams present in the meeting room. This reverberation
ensures that every thought, every new idea, is being transferred automatically
to all other Topic Teams via the short term memory of the participants
and also via the statements that are being written by trained Facilitators
who take notes during the discussion, monitor the adherence of the participants
to the "rules of the game" and support the group in arriving
at clear solutions.
Figure 5: Illustration of the Reverberation effect that occurs
during a Syntegration. The spheres represent topics, the arrows represent
Each group meets for three times during a Syntegration® with the same
constellation of people. In the first meeting the group defines the status
quo in regard to their topic and the relevance for answering the Opening
Question. In the second meeting, the Topic Teams discuss how the ideal
situation would look like and what would be done in a "Greenfield
approach". The third meeting of each team finally focuses on the actions:
"What do we as Topic Team ... propose to the board of directors for
implementation." One run of all twelve topics (which requires usually
a full day) is called Iteration. A Syntegration necessarily consists
of three Iterations because only after each Topic Team has met for three
times and has networked with all other teams, a dissemination of relevant
knowledge of some 90% can be realized and the proposed actions fit together
like the pieces in a jigsaw.
Results are being achieved through a Syntegration® on four different
- A clear action plan has been developed that
integrates the best knowledge of all participants.
- The participants share a strong commitment for
implementation of what has been jointly developed.
- The participants are highly networked after a
Syntegration, team building has occurred.
- Participants learn from each other and better understand the other
participants' positions and constraints.
4 The relevance for present-day organizations
Organizations of any kind face an extremely high internal and
external complexity which they need to manage in order to survive in
their specific competitive environment. According to Ross W. Ashby
[Ashby, 1952] they can only do so if the directive and regulatory
mechanisms that are in place can cope with the complexity they need to
manage, i.e. if the variety of the management is at least equal to the
variety caused by the organization and its environment. This could be
achieved, if the entire knowledge that is available in the
organization were combined. But as a matter of fact, organizations
consist of an accumulation of scientists and specialists that have
undergone different types of education in different areas and now
occupy highly focused niches of expertise within their organizations.
The word science has its etymological roots in the Greek prefix ski as
in schizophrenia or schism and means to separate or to
distinguish. Hence science itself separates reality into different
areas and looks at our world from a mathematical, a biological, a
psychological or a theological point of view. Transferred to the
context of organizations we have a marketing perspective, a sales
perspective, a R&D perspective, a quality management perspective,
a customer or supplier perspective, etc. But only by integrating the
knowledge and experience of these specialists in a way that they can
network into one large biological brain, the necessary variety is
being assembled that is required in order to manage complex
organizations in their complex environments.
The Syntegration method can be applied to all kinds and sizes of
organizations regardless of their level of internal competence,
communication culture or industry. Two prerequisites, however, need to
be observed to make a Syntegration a success: The topic of the
Syntegration, reflected in the Opening Question must be of high
relevance for the organization and the participants must be selected
very carefully: Whom do we need for knowledge generation (the experts)
and whom do we need for the implementation of the actions proposed
Areas of application are commonly strategy definition or implementation,
project kick-off, post merger integration, change management or conflict
Organizations need to make every effort to integrate and to network
the knowledge which is available in the organizations, i.e. in the
brains of its collaborators. Syntegration® can be regarded as an
effective catalyst for knowledge generation and dissemination. The
methodology raises organizations to a new level of communicative
competence and operative effectiveness. It thus opens the door to a
new world of competitive advantages achieved by speed, accuracy of
targeting, strength of consensus and organizational intelligence. Thus
Syntegration depicts the genetic code of effective communication [Pfiffner, 2004].
[Ashby, 1952] R. W. Ashby, Design for a brain, Chapman
and Hall, London, 1952.
[Bavelas, 1952] A. Bavelas, Communication patterns
in problem groups, in Cybernetics: Transactions of the Eighth Conference,
1951, Josiah Macey Jr. Foundation, New York, 1952.
[Beer, 1994a] S. Beer, Beyond dispute: the invention
of team syntegrity, Wiley, Chichester, New York, 1994.
[Beer, 1994b] S. Beer, Brain of the firm, 2nd ed.,
Wiley, Chichester, New York, 1994.
[Pfiffner, 2004] M. Pfiffner, From Workshop to
Syntegration: The Genetic Code of Effective Communication, Malik on
Management letter 10/04.