The Merger – Some positive feedback, some course adjustments and some signposts on the road ahead

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Part of my time this year is being spent as an adviser to two organisations that are merging. It makes an interesting example of a merger process. All relevant posts on the process are collected under the Merger process category.

The merger is progressing. Since I last blogged, the organisation has been through a number of activities, including an employee engagement survey.

Leadership

The leadership are still doing well. It’s become apparent that familiarity between the overall leader and the site director in the larger organisation was hiding some capability issues on the part of the latter, while the site director at the smaller organisation is more prepared both for learning and for new approaches. While that was to be expected for the second site director, it wasn’t for the first.

Demarcation of decision-making is proving tricky. Given absences by the overall leader from each site, some decisions and organisational meetings need to be devolved to the relevant site director. There’s a willingness for this to happen, but letting go of the decisions – and be willing to support the site directors – is never going to be straightforward.

Interestingly, local office politics are now playing (inevitably?) into the leadership team – on occasion a question answered by a site director will later be asked of the overall leader as well. It’s not dissimilar from teenagers testing the gaps between parents, but demands that the two leaders keep communicating to ensure that they take similar stances. (My usual instincts would be that they need similar reasoning, but not identically expressed – human diversity is a good thing. In this situation, I’m starting to wonder – any gap will be exploited but that should be acceptable, but…)

Structures and systems

As a result of the issues with leaders, we’re looking at putting in place fuzzy boundaries on what decisions and information come from whom. Fuzzy, because there are some things that could be appropriate from either leader at a site and some things will shift up or down the hierarchy depending on the context/priority of the decision.

Recognising that the communication between leaders needs to improve, we’re also looking at generating points in the week where conversations/briefings can happen. Fixed tools like a daily email are too time-consuming and don’t allow for questions and debate – this needs to be regular conversation where topics and themes can arise from talking about specific issues that are arising. Current inclination is to keep official agenda to a minimum – the important thing is the conversation, as long as any time-critical issues are addressed as part of it.

The need for these new systems could easily be taken by the leaders as a failure on their part to handle this in advance – I’ve argued strongly that this isn’t the case. In any merger, the initial focus will be on getting people in place, starting conversations and establishing some structures. There are activities that can be going on at the same time to address collaboration and culture between the organisations, as well as efficiencies of systems.

That said, there will always need to be a planned point at which people pause to look at what other elements need to be put in place that weren’t originally anticipated.

It is simply not possible, without being wasteful, to plan every aspect of these things.

Employee engagement survey

This was a fairly simple survey, for budgetary reasons and because anything larger is inappropriate for the scale of the organisation. My focus has been on the smaller part of the new organisation – given my historical association and understanding.

I’d anticipated lowish morale and negative feedback, and so was pleasantly surprised that the overall results are better than I’d expected. Many are positive across the board, all support the site director and there are strong elements for lots of what is going on. Some of the weaker perceptions of the organisation mirror previous perceptions from pre-merger. (This is why knowing context and history can be important – it would be easy for the new leader to take blame for something that’s not theirs to own.)

Some respondents were very positive across the board, most were generally positive. There was one significant negative outlier and one slightly less so. The most significant negative respondent helpfully explained issues and concerns in detail in the comments section of each response. (They are of course all anonymous unless people have chosen to be. Some have chosen to indicate who they are, which leaves a small group of possible candidates for the negative views. It’s unfortunate – there is a temptation to work out who they are, but I don’t necessarily think that’s helpful to do.)

Changes in bureaucracy

The impact on the smaller division has been significant – there were systems managing certain elements of the organisation, but there are particular areas or foci that weren’t covered or weren’t covered in enough detail. So the new leader has brought in systems that have worked in their previous experience. Entirely sensible – they understand what the systems tell them intuitively.

Those systems, of course, still come as a shock to people unused to them. In time, they’ll become much easier although in the short term the effort required of every individual to work within the new systems is not small.

In short, it’s progressing in fits and starts. The focus is still on making the day-to-day work, rather than on some great over-arching vision or on maximising the opportunities that the merger represents. That’s a good choice in the circumstances, but will probably need to be revisited before too long.

From my half-adviser, half-observer seat, I’ve got one or two minor concerns about problems that might be getting stored up. I won’t put them down here, as I want neither to pre-judge things nor to influence people at the organisations who might be reading this.

I will, however, come clean about those later – whether I’m mistaken or not.

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