The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers–Habit 6: Synergize

1. Introduction to Habit 6: Synergize—Sometimes 1 +1 = 3 is a better answer

Habit 6 flows very directly out of Habit 4 (Think Win-Win—on negotiating) and Habit 5 (Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood—on empathic listening).

Here’s how. If you may recall the matrix of possibilities that may occur in human interaction, you have Win/Win being the desirable or actively desirable outcome, with Lose/Lose (compromise) being an acceptable or passively desirable outcome, and Lose/Win (capitulation) and Win/Lose (domination) being unacceptable outcomes for the parties involved.

Fig. 1 Human Interaction Matrix (four possibilities)

What is the level of trust and cooperation for FUTURE negotiations that are engendered in each of these four possibilities?   See the matrix below:

Fig 2. Human Interaction Matrix—Trust and Cooperation Levels

So the interesting thing about the Win-Win interaction in the present is that it lays the groundwork of trust and cooperation in future interactions, and allows creative syntheses of viewpoints or synergisms to occur. And that’s the true wellspring of group or team creativity.

2. Synergy and the “open mode”

As an example of a creative synthesis, I was reading this passage about Habit 6 and all of the wonderful things about team creativity sounded very familiar to me. Then I realized where I heard something similar, and realized that I had done a series of blog posts on an idea that was very similar to that of Stephen Covey’s. This is itself an example of “synergy” or two ideas sparking a third connection (in my mind).

John Cleese did a talk on “creativity and the open mode” in which the “open mode” is precisely this trusting and cooperative atmosphere engendered in a group that allows for creative solutions to take place.

Here are the links to the three blog posts which contain the substance of his talk on “creativity and the open mode”.

The closed mode is the opposite of this, and is what you get if you don’t have that level of trust and cooperation you need for the open mode. The research on the open mode was introduced to John Cleese by Brian Bates, who runs the psychology department at the University of Sussex, and it had been done in the 1970s at Berkeley University by Donald MacKinnon.

Fig. 3. The Synergistic or “Open Mode” contrasted with the Closed Mode



Relaxed Anxious
Expansive (inclusive of other’s viewpoint) Focused (on one’s own viewpoint)
Playful Purposeful
Humorous Not much humor

Here’s how it fits into Stephen Covey’s Habits 4, 5, and 6. If you enter a Win-Win relationship (Habit 4), this engenders an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, which together with empathic listening (Habit 5) creates this open or synergistic mode.

Notice that the “closed mode” is purposeful
as opposed to playful, which seems to go against the principle of Habit 2 (Begin with the End in Mind). However, this is anticipated by Stephen Covey, who says that “purposeful” in this sense when you are dealing with another person means “the predetermined purpose you had in mind” at the beginning of negotiations. A playful spirit engendered by the open mode will create a solution that NEITHER party may have anticipated.

3. Ways of Entering the Open Mode

What are some of the ways of entering the open mode? Remember that, although the idea of “synergy” is the one from Stephen Covey’s book, I am positing that it is closely akin to the “open mode” described by John Cleese in his talk on creativity. John Cleese suggests the following elements are essential for entering this creative state.

Fig. 4 How to Enter the Open Mode



1. Space Create space for yourself away from demands that accompany the closed mode. Seal yourself off where you will be undisturbed.
2. Time (endpoints) You need to create your space at a specific beginning time and a specific ending time in order to create an atmosphere which is closed off from the closed mode in which we normally operate.
3. Time (duration) You need to create sufficient time within which to allow truly creative solutions to emerge.
4. Confidence Allow yourself to play and suppress the fear of making a mistake.
5. Humor Use humor to become more spontaneous and creative.

If you want further elucidation of this process, I suggest you go straight to John Cleese himself and listen to his entertaining and informative talk which is laced with a series of “light-bulb” jokes:

Now this was an attempt to reach the open mode by one’s self, but you could see that it could also apply to negotiations or creative interactions with others. John Cleese in fact includes prescriptions for ways to TALK to the other side that encourage synergy or the open mode:

  • “Would it be even better if …”
  • “I don’t quite understand that—can you just explain it again?”
  • “Go on …”
  • “What if …”
  • “Let’s pretend …”

This will allow you to brainstorm together with your team. Now sometimes as a project manager you have to have communication that is one-way, and the closed mode is okay in those situations when time is pressing and you don’t have time to listen to the other team members. Hopefully those situations will be a rarity during your project. But if you as a leader make the closed mode your MAIN form of communication, you toll the death knell for any hope of creative collaboration in your group. Listen to John Cleese as he gives the following negative lesson in this tongue-in-cheek presentation at the end of his speech on creativity:

JOHN CLEESE: So here’s how to stamp out creativity in the rest of the organization and get a bit of respect going:

A. Allow subordinates no humor

It threatens your self-importance, and especially your omniscience. Treat all humor as frivolous or subversive, because subversive is of course what humor will be in your setup as it’s the only way that people can express their opposition. This is because if they expressed their opposition openly you’d come down on them like a ton of bricks.

So let’s get this clear: blame humor for the resistance that your way of working creates; then you don’t have to blame your way of working. Solemnity is no laughing matter!

B. Criticize everything

Keeping ourselves feeling irreplaceable involves cutting everybody else down to size. So don’t miss an opportunity to undermine your employees’ confidence. A perfect opportunity comes when you’re reviewing work that they’ve done. Use your authority to zero in immediately on all the things you can find wrong. Never ever balance the negatives with positives: only criticize, just as your schoolteachers did. Always remember that praise makes people uppity.

C. Constantly press the accelerator

Demand that people always be actively doing things. If you catch anybody pondering, accuse them of laziness and/or indecision. This is to starve employees of thinking time, because that leads to creativity and insurrection. Demand urgency at all time, use lots of fighting talk and war analogies, and establish a permanent atmosphere of stress, of breathless anxiety, and crisis. In a phrase: keep that mode closed! In this way, we no-nonsense types can be sure that the tiniest, microscopic quantity of creativity in our organization can all be ours. But let your vigilance slip for one moment, and you could find yourself surrounded by happy, enthusiastic and creative people whom you might not be able to control ever again.

So in the spirit of George Costanza on Seinfeld, do the OPPOSITE of what was stated by John Cleese and you will be on the way to a better, more creative team.

In my last post, I will present the last and final habit 7: Sharpen the Saw


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