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Mergers and acquisitions systems thinking strategies, part 1

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A merger of unequals — have you ever heard a solo oboe?

I transitioned into a human capital focus gradually over my career.  My collected experiences just overwhelmingly led me to realize without commitment, understanding, and ownership you have little hope of individual, team, or organization success. What on earth brought about a mergers and acquisitions systems thinking approach?

Well where we are usually has a lot to do with where we’ve been AND not just where we’ve been, but if we noticed.

Conduct Becoming of Systems

People and motivation began to have impact as early as my conducting studies at Berklee College of Music.  As a conductor you need to create a compelling vision that you rely on others to deliver to.

As a conductor I will never be as technically proficient as the first violinist [an interesting piece on the role of the first violinist] or the horn player or harpist.

However, as a conductor, I need to motivate them to give me their best, I need to understand their motivation for the piece, their technical ability, and their role within the piece.  I need to understand all that and they too need to understand that.

The symphony is a blend of sounds, timbres, volumes, and notes all at work or at rest – as need be, but blending together to produce a sound.  I, as the conductor, need to interpret the composition, convey the vision or sound I have in my head from the written sheet music, and motivate a seamless collaboration.

My Vision Depends on Your Performance

Now if that first violinist is in a rotten mood, for whatever reason, and that reason may be entirely outside of my influence, I need to tap into their talent and help them rise above that mood and deliver to the occasion.  I have options:

  • I can yell at them in front of the orchestra;
  • I can pull them aside;
  • I can listen to them;
  • I can threaten them; and
  • I can cajole them

However, each of those approaches and how, when, or where I deliver each message has varying consequences I will have to live with and the group may have to make changes to accommodate.  And, importantly, not all are motivated through the same message.

I need to find each person’s motivation.  I need to motivate all of them.  This is my responsibility.  If it was just left up to their technical skill there would be no need for practice or a conductor.  As you know, technical ability is not a guarantee for success — just ask a professional sports team:  technical ability does not produce a winning game plan or guarantee a team’s success.

So, the role of the conductor started my journey to understand motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic.  I was intrigued and moved into marketing where I found motivation was equally challenging to tap into and to understand.  Luck would have it my MBA program was sponsored by the number 1 organization behavior school in the world and though I came out with a double major in marketing and finance the entire program placed managers and talent at the forefront of organization success.

Systems Thinking for Mergers and Acquisitions Systems

I discovered systems theory working at Booz Allen Hamilton (now Strategy&).  Though I was in the Organization Development Change Management team this team’s approach seemed to overwhelmingly rely on business process reengineering and a very mechanistic approach to change.  I started to look into systems theory as it had been co-opted by the engineering and hardware folks to deliver to their needs.

One of the most influential papers I’ve read is from the book Systems Theory for Organization Development, edited by Thomas G. Cummings [the book is out of print but you can usually get it from Amazon for ~$4].  The article, written by Roger Evered, is titled “Consequences of and Prospects for Systems Thinking in Organizational Change“.

I’m taking a section of that paper as whole.  This is a good overview of systems thinking and as you read it think about the orchestra example above or any of the change, mergers, or buyouts you’ve lived through.  I’ve added bold to some sections:

  1. Systems thinking has enabled us to think about organization at a higher level of abstraction than was previously possible.  Instead of thinking about particular organization, and similarities between particular organizations, systems thinking requires that we think more in terms of the general characteristics of the organization itself – such as cohesion, interdependence, stability, etc.  Systems thinking is a conceptualization of a higher order configuration than traditional science has previously considered.  Moreover, systems thinking transcends the various branches of science.
  2. Systems thinking has provided us with a language for describing organizational phenomena.  Such notions as boundary, boundary spanning, interface, feedback, homeostasis, control system, organization goals, input, throughput and output, differentiation and integration were all catalyzed by systems thinking.  Most major advances in human thought are characterized by the introduction of new language (e.g. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory,  Lewin’s field theory)
  3. Systems thinking has enabled us to think in relational terms rather than in terms of things.  To see organizational phenomena in terms of relationships between entities (whether persons or things) is potentially more enriching than merely aggregating the persons and things.  This has led to more process-oriented, and contextual view of organizations.
  4. Systems thinking has stimulated our holistic appreciation.  It has enabled us to think in terms of the wholeness properties of an organization such as organizational personality, climate, cohesion, and integration.  There is now widespread conceptual recognition that the total relevant environment of an organization is a major determinant of corporate choices.
  5. Systems thinking has necessitated that we modify science away from analytical, reductionistic, causal, future neglecting positivism and toward a science that is more synthesizing, transactive, contextual, emergent, future incorporating, phenomenal and participative.  To view the world, and indeed science itself, as cogenerative, transactively determined, and continuously in process is necessarily to reject (or at least radically modify) the present character of science.
  6. Systems thinking has led us to a realization that there are two kinds of explanation and meaning.  The first type of meaning is the traditional deductive explanation derived from logical analysis.  And the second, which systems thinking has stimulated, is the meaning that derives from pattern recognition and from Gestalt processes of the human mind.  Left-brain/right-brain as described by Ornestein and others.
  7. Systems thinking has given us the potential for world-defining by the organizational participants themselves.  Boulding and Lewin have described ways in which an individual can locate him/herself in the total system in which he/she is embedded – in terms of the spatio-temporal gestalt, the field of personal relationshps, the world of technical properties, the domain of intrapsychic feelings and sentiments, the context of events, and the pervasive pool of linguo-cultural-phenomenal world (or image of the world), giving rise to the necessary variety and differentiation that enables organizations to function.  And when these individual ‘worlds’ become synthesized within an organization, we can think of the system’s image of the world that characterizes that particular system, or firm.  It is now believed that these system generated images – what are sometimes termed core metaphors – play an important role in energizing and guiding the system.

I’ll let these seven points sit for a bit and return to them in Mergers and acquisitions systems thinking strategies, part 2 blog [of three in the series] that will include Evered’s list of negative fallout from systems thinking.

Systems Theory Series:

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