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2013 The Year of M&A? Beating the Odds of Failure

Source: Amazon.com

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by: Gregory P. Shea, PhD, and Cassie A. Solomon co-authors of,"Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work."

Leading a major change effort in any organization, let alone a large and complex one, presents a first order challenge, often among the most difficult of any executive career. In fact, the numbers show that up to 75% of change efforts fail.

But the risk of failure gets even worse (and more expensive) when it comes to mergers and acquisitions.

(Read More: M&A 'Almost Necessary' Now: Santoli)

Experts such as the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania's Harbir Singh and Harvard University's Clayton Christensen have recently reported a historically distressing level of M&A failure, citing failure rates as high as 90%.

Despite the poor odds, PWC's Annual Global CEO Survey reports that US CEOs anticipate an increase in M&A activity in 2013 with 42% anticipating a domestic acquisition. The large number of M&A's belie their regular failure to yield expected financial returns, particularly when it comes to capturing synergies rather than trying to make a portfolio play. Multiple studies over the past several decades tell basically the same story.

Why this record for failure?

According to a Marsh, Mercer, and Kroll survey conducted in collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit, "organizational cultural differences and human capital integration issues [are] the two most significant transaction issues faced" today.

Managing the people side has everything to do with success.

(Read More:M&A Outlook for 2013)

In Red Herring Magazine's review of mergers over a decade ago, management and technology journalist Joan Indiana Rigdon argued that most mergers fail because there is too little effort to integrate the companies. In another Red Herring article, she said, "The most difficult part of any merger is combining cultures from both sides."

The news, then, is not new. If M&As were a gambling table, then you should take your chips elsewhere and if you decided to wager anyway, then you should invest heavily in integrating the people. How can a leader contemplating a deal beat the failure odds to capture the value of the synergies?

In our research and work consulting with organizations for decades, which we present in our recent book, "Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work," we identify two tenets for creating successful change:

  1. Focus on the behaviors you want from people.
  2. Design the work systems that comprise the overall work environment to foster those behaviors.


(Read More: Cramer: These 10 Companies Ripe for M&A)

If you seek operational synergies, think first about the people. Can you envision the integration? Can you imagine how key roles will interact and do you know which behaviors you will want to see to confirm the integration's success? In short, can you see the specific patterns of behavior that will comprise the culture of the combined organizations?

Then, imagine how you would construct the aspects of the work environment to support the changes you envision. Consider the eight key aspects of the work environment: organization, workplace design, task or work processes, people (especially, their skills), rewards (and not necessarily money), measurement, information distribution, and decision allocation.

With these elements in mind, you can effectively assess an M&A opportunity in three steps:

1. Carefully construct the scenes you would like to see post-M&A. For example, how might a supply chain middle manager operate across service lines a year post-merger? What does an HR consult to a line supervisor look like six months from now? How does an executive team consider enterprise wide capital allocation in the coming fiscal year? Who is part of the scenes? How does the work unfold? What role do the tools—be they devices for virtual teaming or types of databases—play in the scene?

2. Look at what aspects of the work systems will need to change (i.e., organization, workplace design, work processes, people, rewards, measurement, information distribution, and decision allocation) to make those scenes likely to occur again and again. Ensure you will be able to change at least four aspects of the work environment. Restated, can you change enough of the environment around the actors in those scenes so that the team will enact those scenes or something akin to them?

3. Finally, assess the return on investment. How much time, effort, and money will such specific changes cost you? Is it worth it? If not, then why do the deal? Why add your failure to those of others? If yes, then you have the beginnings of a strong implementation plan.

With proper planning and consideration, you can beat the odds at the M&A table.

(Read More: We Know M&A's Back—But Where's It Going Next?)

About the authors: Gregory P. Shea, PhD, is president of Shea and Associates, Inc. He is also adjunct professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Cassie A. Solomon is the president and founder of The New Group Consulting, Inc.