Integrating businesses or practices presents its own unique set of challenges for all involved. New members of an organisation are already experiencing a lack of psychological safety, from likely having been part of a close-knit team in a smaller organisation, to meeting new, influential, and powerful faces in a much larger machine, often whilst coming to terms with now absent bosses and mentors. They know there will be challenges and they know the chief priorities of the new business may well be different to what they are used to. So, how do you bring clarity and calm to a concerned workforce?
The critical piece to re-establishing psychological safety, is helping new teams and organisations understand what the direction of the company is, where they fit into it as a team, and how they as an individual contribute to its success. Strategy “one-pagers”, or strategy maps, as advocated by Robert Kaplan & David Norton as part of their balanced scorecard, are a really useful way to show new employees how they fit in to the bigger picture.
Aside from comprehensive due diligence in the first place, the key to smooth integration is honesty. You may have experience of resistance among staff members within a new acquisition, or even a mass exodus. Exit interviews often reveal that people leave because priorities have changed, or the new business was not what they signed up for when joining the original business. It is critical to be honest at this stage. I have been in the room when integration leaders have spoken about being a big family, and being there to hold your hand, only to never be seen again. This is cultural suicide. It immediately offers a negative shared experience to the new group that will form a core belief about the new organisation. Promoting smooth integration doesn’t mean smooth talking. It means building mutual trust and respect through presence, honesty, and authenticity. The leadership and communication skills among those charged with integrating new practices or sub-units, is absolutely critical. As such it is important to understand personality profiles and effective communication with different personality types. For example, we use Wiley Everything DiSC as a key tool in supporting successful integration from a human standpoint.
Rate of change
The other aspect of successful integration is the speed at which new systems and processes are introduced. Although there is a desire to get new acquisitions into line as quickly as possible, there are only so many changes an individual can experience before psychological safety again becomes an issue and quiet resistance creeps in. I speak from personal experience when I say that introducing too many things too quickly is a recipe for disaster. As such, integration leaders need to be as communicative as possible in terms of what the future will look like, and what steps will be taken when. New employees can get on board with supportive, rationalised, incremental change, but as I have seen too often, disjointed sweeping edicts will only bring problems. It is also important to emphasise benefit to the individual, such as upskilling, support, opportunities for new roles and development, etc., if this is indeed the case.
From a management point of view, understanding the strategic benefit of the acquisition is critical to understanding the type of integration approach required. For example, if a veterinary corporate group with primary experience in first opinion veterinary practice has purchased a large referral hospital, this would require a long term, “observe and learn” approach, rather than an aggressive quick turnaround. In this case, the value of the acquisition is in the expertise of the specialists, so preservation of their systems and culture, allowing it to evolve and slowly integrate over time is preferrable to a reorienting approach, where administrative and management functions are centralised quickly. If it’s an acquisition to grow market share in a part of the industry that the organisation knows well, then the integration process may well be quicker and more seamless. However, even in these scenarios, it’s important to know what level of intervention is required. Many corporate veterinary integrations have not gone smoothly because it wasn’t clear to those involved at the coal face what the approach was, and no consideration was given to the intricacies of strategic change, or organisational justice, namely the fair distribution of information and fair and appropriate involvement in procedural decisions.
Key integration questions
When thinking about smooth integration with a minimum of resistance or unwanted collateral damage, it is useful to apply strategic tools, which can ask vital, often not previously considered questions. For example, Balogun & Hope-Hailey’s “change kaleidoscope” offers a useful framework for consideration, which we will adapt to a veterinary environment.
Time – how quickly is change needed? This may depend on the financial state of the purchased organisation. In situations where an incumbent vet has left the practice, this will likely lead to declining profits, so rapid change might be required from a centralising and stock ordering point of view to mitigate this.
Scope – what degree of change is needed?
Preservation – how willing is the acquiring organisation to preserve certain processes or cultural norms? Is it willing to learn from the acquisition? (Although this often depends on the size of the acquisition)
Diversity (of offering) – Does the acquired organisation have the same services, standards, and level of expertise as the acquiring one? Are there any circumstances where a cautious, learning approach may be required?
Capability – Does an appropriate level of authority and individual capability reside within the acquired organisation to ensure that change can be delivered? Is there a need for upskilling or additional support and training?
Capacity – how much time, money, and resources are at the disposable of the integration team to make the project a success? For example, if an integrations team are due to be on site for a week and then never to be seen again, how can expectations and rate of change be managed so that negative experiences don’t enter the fabric of the new culture?
Readiness – to what degree are the new employees prepared for change? Are they still clinging to old ways? What are their concerns? Are they exhibiting resistance?
Power – How careful does the acquiring organisation have to be in exerting power? What level of power do individuals have within the acquired organisation (e.g., does a former practice principal now have a voice within the acquiring organisation?) How can the acquiring organisation ensure that non-negotiable change is undertaken collaboratively and with a minimum or resistance?
Answering these questions will shed light on the type of approach required from a leadership perspective.
Ultimately, integration can be a tricky business, and there is rarely the time to implement change effectively. However, if time is taken to understand the scope of the project, the importance of psychological safety, the benefit of giving new employees context, the value of considering strategic tools in delivering change, and the advantages of moving incrementally, then many a pitfall can be avoided. If undertaken carefully and deliberately, a new acquisition can enthusiastically buy in to the new regime and start delivering value in a relatively short timeframe. If I could offer one piece of advice, it would be to not change too much too soon. Trust that the valuation of the acquisition will deliver its expected profit with no change, then allow for incremental improvement.