Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Avoid the 'Synecdoche Syndrome' like the plague

What do you see?

Scroll down to see the complete picture!

A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole and vice versa. We can immediately see from the above that this can often cause uncertainty, confusion and problems. It could even prove life threatening!    

Smart collaborations create interest and energy and encourage participation by quickly identifying and addressing high profile problems and issues relevant to their aspirations and purpose. 

But these high profile areas, be they acute medical and health services, complex and pressing social problems, high impact crime or the presence of homeless people on the streets, can quickly begin to represent the entirety of the problem, obscuring the bigger picture and the complex web of people, needs and services that surround them.

A health and social partnership may well have successfully addressed the needs of those with complex mental and physical health and social problems, but what of those who are not so badly off? Have their needs been addressed or has the complex and demanding part obscured the less complex and less demanding whole? Do those with milder problems now need to wait until they become the 'part of the problem' that is recognised and addressed?

It is right and proper that collaborations should focus upon those parts of a problem that are most pressing. Arguably, it is even right and proper that they should focus upon high profile areas that will garner support and resources for them. 

If, however, the 'Synecdoche Syndrome' infects a collaboration's thinking, if the part comes to represent the whole in people's minds, blanking out the bigger picture and the current and future problems (and potential solutions) it could reveal, the collaboration will have contracted a chronic condition that will slowly eat away its resources and diminish and eventually terminate its effectiveness. The needs of the many will grow and gradually inflame, overwhelm and weaken the discrete and specific areas a collaboration had previously dealt with so well.

Collaborations need to look beyond the pressing, high profile issues that demand their attention and that are so attractive in terms of gaining support. They need to future-proof their aspirations, purpose and activities by engaging with the whole of their environment, the whole of which they are only a part. They need to acknowledge people's wider concerns, problems and issues, analyse them and assimilate the insights they gain and the solutions they identify into their thinking and activities.

They must never mistake the part for the whole.

They must avoid the Synecdoche Syndrome like the plague.

For more about collaboration and partnership go to: Sleeping-with-the-Enemy-Achieving-Collaborative-Success-2nd-Edition.   


  1. I think it was Marcel Proust who said, 'The greatest journey in the world is not to see 100 countries through one pair of eyes, but rather one country through 100 pairs of eyes'.
    Good article Charles. We need lots of diversity and collaboration if we stand any chance of glimpsing the bigger picture.

  2. Thanks for the comment Tim. Yes, as you say, seeing the bigger picture needs plenty of diversity and collaboration - and substantial amounts of creativity and flexibility of perception.