Analysis Versus Synthesis: The Two Styles of Thinking

14 Apr 2015 8:00 AM | Tricia Simo Kush (Administrator)

Author: Frederick "Ken" Sexe

The intent of this blog is to provide a small description of both of these thinking methods with the hope that it spawns curiosity in others to learn more about how these thinking styles work. These theories can be found in several of Russ Ackoff’s books such as Ackoff’s Best and Systems Thinking for Curious Managers as well as on YouTube.

Conventional thinking can be separated into two different methods. Analysis is a reductionist method that involves studying an item by reducing it to its constituent parts and studying the behavior or properties of each part separately in an effort to aggregate an understanding of the whole. Synthesis is a systems-based method that involves understanding the role or function of the item within a containing system and studying how the interactions of the parts within it aid the item in fulfilling their role within the system.

There are frequent arguments as to which of the two methods is most effective. In actuality, each method answers different types of questions. Analysis is best for answering “how to” questions; for instance, if an individual needs to understand how a car functions the individual can reduce a car to its various components to find the answer. Synthesis, on the other hand, provides us with answers to “why” questions. For example, if an individual needs to understand why a car has wheels and not tracks the individual can look at a car’s role within the greater system (in this example, to provide reliable transportation on land) to understand why a car design has wheels (and why tracks may be more suitable if the role of the car within the larger system changes).

Understanding the role of an item within a system also aids in designing the enclosing system also (in this example, since the car is designed with rubber tires the containing roads system can be redesigned to take advantage of this fact). Synthesis is also a design-based methodology with several problem-solving and decision-making methods focusing on improving a system through an understanding of how each component interacts with others to perform the role of the system. Analysis and synthesis are complementary to each other and in some instances can be used at the same time (for instance, cognitive work analysis includes abstraction hierarchy which uses synthesis and abstraction decomposition which uses analysis). Analysis cannot yield understanding of a system yet synthesis cannot explain how parts within a system perform their role.
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Frederick (Ken) Sexe is a lifelong learner currently wrapping up his PhD in Engineering Management and Organizational Psychology at Northcentral University. His hobbies include challenging prevailing patterns of thinking that discourage new ideas while developing new ways to do things. He is currently employed as a Senior Systems Engineer at Raytheon where he is taking a career break from management to pursue his educational goals and focus on his family.

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