Culture is a story we tell about ourselves that we believe is the story. But it’s a story that can change. New chapters are written all the time.
An acquisition starts a new story of the merged organization, but it’s also a new chapter in the ongoing stories of both acquired and acquirer. Keeping those stories alive and adding to them is as important as creating the new one. And for the new one to resonate it needs to be shared and created by all those involved.
Even troubled companies have Camelot stories – about the time they received an award, won the big account, launched a new web site, stole a march on a competitor by developing a new product. They also have cautionary tales – the champion in Accounting, the troll in IT, why it’s dangerous to go visiting HR.
It’s understandable, but unfortunate, that there’s so much secrecy in the early stages of an acquisition. Due diligence is limited to a handful of senior executives who communicate mainly about “hard facts” and only cursorily about the integration process – the story that will be unfolding in the months to come. There’s lots to be learned from both the Camelot and the cautionary tales if only the stories told around the water cooler were part of due diligence.
How an acquirer values the culture – the stories – of the acquired can mean the difference between being a hero, embraced by all, and a villain, resisted at all costs. The acquirer’s story shouldn’t be forgotten either. It shapes how the new employees see themselves fitting into the merged culture. In one acquisition I was involved in, we were seen as the barbarians at the gate. The acquired company was the flower of civilization and the CEO who sold his company and stayed as a consultant became the noble prince, resisting the evil acquirer and defending the downtrodden. You can imagine how bumpy that one was.
The theory of social constructionism suggests that organizations, relationships and even our self-image as individuals are a function of the stories we tell about our interactions and choices. We’re all spinning stories all the time, and social constructionism says that words create worlds.
Since it’s unlikely to happen during due diligence, it’s critical early in the planning and during the integration to bring the stories into the open to understand strengths, weaknesses, hopes, aspirations and fears. And to begin crafting the new chapters and the new story.