Some hear merger and acquisition. Some hear Scylla and Charybdis. In either case, most get lured to their death or destruction. While the lure of Sirens was a myth, we do know that 83% of mergers and acquisitions fail to increase value. And we know why. They fail because of poor strategic focus, poor cultural integration and/or poor delivery of synergies. Unfortunately, avoiding these Sirens requires more than just putting wax in your ears. It requires deliberate and detailed effort.


Strategic Focus


How many times have you heard someone say one of their strategies for growth is mergers and acquisitions? But mergers and acquisitions are not strategies. They’re an enabler of another strategy.


Strategy is about the creation and allocation of resources to the right place, in the right way, at the right time, over time to overcome barriers and deliver what matters. That means there’s a wrong place, wrong time and wrong way. Thus, strategies are about fundamental choices about where to play and how to win. And the heart of how to win is an organization’s core focus.


Michael Porter suggests that almost any value chain includes design/invention, production, delivery, and customer service/experience in addition to marketing and selling. Your single overarching strategy should identify the right way to build and leverage differentially valuable advantages versus competitors at one of the first four while also marketing and selling – which every organization must do one way or another.


That core strategic focus flows into strategic priorities supported by enablers and capabilities. For example:

  • Apple wins with predominant design and technological innovation. Its stores are a marketing vehicle.
  • Coke wins with a predominant production system, based on its physical assets, partnered with its bottlers’ predominant distribution system.
  • Walmart wins with a predominant product-supply/delivery infrastructure.
  • Ritz-Carleton wins with predominant people-based service/guest experience.


The 17% of mergers and acquisitions that do create value generally enable an already existing strategy. Apple should do mergers and acquisitions that further enable design. Coke should focus on production. Walmart should focus on product supply or delivery. The Ritz-Carleton should focus on the guest experience. And you should focus on mergers and acquisitions that enable your core focus.


Cultural Integration


How many times have heard someone say they’re going to acquire another organization and keep it running as a separate entity to preserve the strengths they bought? Too many times. Almost by definition, you can’t reap the synergistic benefits of a merger or acquisition if you keep it separate. It can’t enable your core focus separately. You have to merge them in and integrate them.

You’ve got three choices. 1) Assimilate their people into your culture. 2) Assimilate your people into their culture. 3) Combine the two into a brand-new culture. The first two choices are painful for the people giving up their heritage. Many of them won’t make the transition and will leave one way or another. The last is the most complicated. In any case, the culture must align with the core focus:


Deliver Synergies


Too many times, “synergy” is a euphemism for “cost-saving.” To be fair, cost-saving is an important way to free up funds for other investments. But, the most important synergies combine complementary strengths to enable strategic priorities.

Witness Disney’s acquisition of Pixar. They didn’t care about the cost-savings. They bought Pixar a) to leverage its technology across all its animation and b) to acquire new leadership for Disney Animation. Then they bolted others on to the new strengthened platform to get access to other characters and distribution channels with their acquisitions of Marvel and then Lucas Films/Star Wars and then Fox.


The Right M&A Mindset


None of these are easy. The thinking is complex. The implementation and change management required is complex. As you look at future M&A, think through:


  1. The strategic focus. Be sure you’re clear on what your core focus is and how the merger or acquisition target will enable your strategic priorities.
  2. The cultural integration. Yes, Virginia, you do have to integrate your acquisitions. Have a bias to choose one or the other cultures and assimilate all into that.
  3. Delivering synergies. Yes. Cost-savings matter. And look for the complementary synergies in line with your strategic focus and new, combined culture. Yes. All three of these ideas are integrated – as should be your mergers and acquisitions.


Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #786) and a summary of my book, The Merger & Acquisition Leader’s Playbook


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