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Friday 7 August 2020

Avoid the "Synecdoche Syndrome" like the plague

What do you see?

Scroll down to see the whole 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 issues, 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 surrounding complex web of people, needs and other associated issues that combine to create the whole picture.

A health and social partnership may well have successfully addressed the needs of those with severe and pressing mental and/or physical health and social problems, but what of those who are not so badly off? Have their needs been addressed or has the severe and demanding part obscured the less severe and less demanding part? 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 a collaboration should focus upon those parts of a problem that are most pressing. Arguably, it is even right and proper that a collaboration should focus upon high profile areas that will garner support and resources. 

If, however, the "Synecdoche Syndrome" infects a collaboration's thinking, if the part comes to represent the whole in people's minds and blanks out the bigger picture of current and future problems (and potential solutions) that would be otherwise revealed, a collaboration will have contracted a chronic condition that slowly eats away resources and diminishes effectiveness. Eventually, the needs of the many will grow and gradually inflame, overwhelm and weaken the discrete and specific priority areas a collaboration had previously dealt with so well.

A collaboration needs to look beyond the pressing, high profile issues that strongly demand attention and so easily attract support. It needs to future-proof its aspirations, purpose and activities by engaging with the whole of its environment: the whole of which it is only a part. It needs to acknowledge and analyse people's wider concerns, problems and issues and assimilate the insights, ideas (and potential solutions) consequently gained.

A collaboration must never mistake the part for the whole; it must avoid the Synecdoche Syndrome like the plague.  


  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.