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A merger backwards is easy, the Future not so much

January 24, 2011

In the past few months, I’ve been advising a merger between two organisations happening near me. You can catch up on some of the details in the Merger Process category of my blog.

What’s been fascinating is the degree to which elements that were striking at the first session – when Dick, Sally, Anne, Meg and I had groups working in The Future, Backwards – have been denied and excused by various people, but keep coming to the surface.

The Future, Backwards is a tool I’ve used a lot in the past – to open up discussions about branding with a brewing company, to develop vision and strategy for a UK government department and to clarify next steps and embed learning for an internet startup. This time around, we were working with multiple audiences within two organisations.

We expected that both would find the Backwards element of the exercise reasonably easy – and that sharing between all the groups would be enlightening. Which turned out, mostly, to be the case. Looking forward we expected to produce some real differences of opinion, but on this occasion people tended to go for generalisations and bland thoughts, so differences in The Future were less evident.

There were certainly no driving ideas or aspirations. Rather depressing, given the circumstances and the opportunities.

The de facto leader of the group that struggled to produce the Backwards element – sitting semi-sullenly, insisting that “well, nothing happened, no-one told us anything” – after the event spent some considerable time lobbying leadership that they had been misled in the exercise. It was fortunate in many ways that I’d been paying particular attention to that group for other reasons, so knew exactly what had been going on.

Recently, I’ve had cause to reflect on how it’s progressed. The signs and signals were there right from the start.

The overall direction of the group has been lacking – there’s been progress, but it’s been driven more by current need and difficulties than by any over-arching picture. The lack of coherent Futures is worth watching in future.

The leadership of one organisation (the one that drove the merger) has proved to be the driving force, along with the overall leader of the merged organisation. The advisory body of the larger, more passive organisation seems on the verge of disintegrating. (For reasons of tact, I hadn’t mentioned in my original post that this advisory body didn’t manage to produce anyone to participate in the Future, Backwards exercise.)

And the one truly negative voice in all of this (there has been a staff survey recently) appears to be (it is anonymous, but the comments give a strong indication) the leader of the group that found Backwards difficult. The rest of that group, interestingly, are not of the same mind.

So some interesting early signals that I’ll direct attention to more strongly next time. Not to say that they will necessarily result in anything particular – no prediction – but simply to increase anticipatory awareness.

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