A merger-in-progress of two large service organisations is struggling to achieve its intentions. What’s happening has important lessons for everyday leadership and self-management practices.
The distinctly different organisational cultures are not a natural mix; each has a long history of operating idiosyncratically in separate areas, serving distinctly different demographics with strong local loyalties and attachments, and of growing their own unique responses to local problems over many years. Their leadership and management practices appear to be entirely dissimilar. Poles apart, people say. Oil and water. Chalk and cheese. Senior leaders in neither group can clearly articulate key aspects of their own practices.
Seems to me, from a position of being able to closely observe the process, that what could be learned from it includes these points:
- Well-honed context-independent personal and group management operating systems can provide clarity where there is confusion, and procedural certainty when we don’t know what the heck we should do next. When there is no map, they can at least serve as a reliable compass.
- Acquiring them should never become a matter of urgency. If you don’t routinely use and polish them, don’t expect to access and use them in difficult times when they’ll be vitally important and urgent.
- We should check the alignment of our personal and group management operating systems “compass” with those of others before embarking on joint or collective ventures.
FUSION OR CONFUSION
The merger in question is a forced marriage; neither party has a natural inclination to join forces but they are required to bring about a wide range of services operating seamlessly over a large geographic span at a number of sites, despite major differences. The motivation? Reduce costs. Dream on! Several key players predict an expensive and messily irresolvable impasse.
Motives are suspected. The state of the other’s organisational culture is viewed with derision. Senior managers are seriously alarmed by the level of challenge ahead. Some despair at the prospect and the lack of progress. Much angst centers on the difficulty of “Getting them [counterparts in the other organisation] to understand what’s important and what’s required for this to work. They can’t keep doing it the way they’re used to, because that doesn’t and won’t work here. It shouldn’t work anywhere.”
They are not even close to being on the same page. They’re using different books, written in languages incomprehensible to the other, and the difficulties are much magnified (in the order of trying to swim through molasses) when discussions are attempted between and amongst groups rather than between individuals.
While I don’t know if this merger will succeed or even if it should be attempted, I can see many of the usual causes of organisational dysfunction playing themselves out. Although there’s no sign yet of them understanding this, I know that attending to them would help the parties, leaders especially, make headway towards singing from the same hymn-book if not exactly the same page.
What follows is a discussion about three of those, the most obvious:
1. People focus on tangible goals, tasks, implementation plans and other “practical” agenda while making untested, unsafe assumptions about basic processes (personal and group management operating systems, for example) for developing capacity and working together.
Assumptions are suppositions or premises incorporated into thinking and regarded as true. If untested with others presumed to also hold them, they may be entirely invalid and lead to misdirection, confusion, conflict, blocked progress, inappropriate conclusions, unwise plans and initiatives.
Many unsafe assumptions are being made in this merger. I’ve asked leaders, Does this project require solving problems, making decisions and plans, forming teams, resolving conflict and running meetings? Yes, of course, they tell me, these processes are fundamental to the merger initiatives and everyday work.
I’ve then asked, Have you determined for yourself, the models, conceptual frameworks and assumptions you make about these matters for your work on the merger? Have you discussed those operating systems with your counterparts with a view to agreeing on them – or at least to acknowledging and working around the differences? The answer to these questions, universally, is No.
My questions are intended to help bring important unconscious assumptions to awareness. Not all those assumptions need be addressed simultaneously; just the most basic, pertinent and pressing. Methodical priority management suggests they should always be within the Never Urgent, Always Important category. Too late, in this case; they’ve become both very important and very urgent. Oops!
Of course, those who haven’t yet habituated constructive operating systems of this kind in their day-to-day work will find it difficult to do so under the pressure of the merger. Clarity about them and skill in their application is most required where there are sharp differences, when tension runs high and the consequences of misjudgments, miscommunication and failure are particularly serious.
Unwise and unsafe foundational assumptions are commonplace in almost every workplace at the start-up for example, of working-parties, project work, teamwork, meetings, planning and strategic planning, problem solving and change initiatives. As with house-painting, careful preparation is often tedious but everything applied to a poorly-prepared foundation is wasted effort.
2. Managers and leaders often have perfect hearing, but their listening is seriously impaired. In their interpersonal and relationship management practices, they tend to argue for, justify and defend positions, rather than listen to hear, understand and consider differing perspectives – especially to resistance, concerns and anxiety about change. They tend to push predetermined solutions, or to solve problems by arguing about solutions, rather than by clarifying and exploring challenges, issues and their causes. People on the receiving-end then become more solid in their opposition to what is proposed. Opportunities to build trust, respect and understanding are lost.
When I know that whatever I say and however I choose to say it, you will honour, explore, ask questions to elicit details, and reflect and demonstrate your understanding of my intentions until you show you have understood them correctly – you clarify, develop and illuminate my thinking and you gain my trust.
When you engage in discussions about problems with high-quality listening and within a methodical problem solving framework, you make the process – and progress – easier. Solutions arrived at this way are likely to deal with root causes, to endure, and not create further problems.
“Since we think our own beliefs are based on the facts, we conclude that people who disagree with us haven’t been exposed to the right information. So when we have failed to ‘educate’ our opponents – they still refuse to become enlightened – we move from the assumption that they are ignorant to the conviction that they are stupid. Or even that they are willfully turning their backs on the truth, and are therefore evil.” Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.
That high-quality active listening and good-sense problem-solving processes are far from routine in interpersonal and group workplace relationships, ought to be plain to anyone capable of paying attention to process as they also engage in tasks and agenda. Trouble is, few make the effort to bring these practices to awareness and many are unconsciously incompetent in their application. I am often shocked by how unaware are managers and leaders of their skill levels in this regard; it’s like asking fish to describe water. Possibilities for real colleagueship can be vastly enhanced by a determination to change this. Enhancing these skills is simple, though not necessarily easy. How well do you listen? [If in doubt, check out the Self-Appraisal process.]
3. There is no clear Big Picture or strategic planning and few meaningful drivers with which to guide other plans, other than a loosely-stated broad intention. There is very little methodical planning, a great deal of improvisation and many unclarified assumptions made about the planning process.
It’s common for organisations, leaders, managers, groups and teams to behave as though planning is a matter of tossing ideas around, arguing about them under the misconception that they are ‘problem-solving”, “brainstorming” and “reaching consensus”, and then somehow prioritising them as a lightly-sketched list of actions. Although this sort of improvisation may succeed, its progress is frequently marked by the eventual need to revisit the issues from scratch or by having to undo things already done.
Things won’t go according to a plan you don’t have.
Merger and restructuring initiatives as conventionally practised often involve trying to do the wrong thing (business as usual without regard to the causes of systemic problems), better (with reduced resources and fewer people). People in these organisations who lack the ability to resist or influence the process will live through slow motion catastrophes.
Those with the insight and competence to influence it, hold extraordinary potential for developing everyone’s capacity.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s everyone being on the same page and doing it well.” [Richie McCaw, captain of New Zealand’s national and world champion rugby team]
© 2010-2014 Tom Watkins. All rights reserved.