By Ian Gee:
For the past few weeks I have been wondering how as an OD practitioner I can help make the soft stuff hard? No, this is not my changing career and starting to peddle a snake oil cure for male impotency problems! What I have been mulling over, is how to help managers and leaders make use of the kind of data we, as HR and OD professionals, seek out, understand and know makes the difference between good and bad decisions?
I have decided to explore this by looking at the world of M&A’s, though I think the issues around ‘soft data’ are present in much of our work. About a month or so ago I spoke at an M&A conference about the challenges of using Western OD processes to integrate businesses in the emerging markets. The person who spoke before me shared data on why so many M&A‘s fail to add value to the business and in many, many cases destroys value. This reminded me of a similar M&A session I attended ten years ago when I worked in the OD team at Shell International. I checked my notes from the earlier session and was disheartened to find that the reasons for failure are by and large the same. Not a lot has change in ten years. Lets have a look at what’s at the top of the list:
- Incompatible cultures
- Inability to manage the target
- Unable to implement change
- Clash of management styles/egos
To my mind, all these issues fall within the remit of our trade and tend to be seen as the ‘soft stuff’. Here we have a good example of where the consequences of not taking account of soft data end up being hard on the business and on the shareholder we know this is the case and yet very little has happened to make a difference.
As the presentation progressed, there were a lot of head nods and sighs of recognition from the senior HR folks present. I asked a few questions and the overriding response from those present was that it is almost impossible to get CEO’s and other C suite executives to take these issues seriously as they are seen as too soft and fluffy. I felt sorry for the HR folks, who had that tired look you see in people who know they can make a difference, but feel like they are banging their heads against a brick wall.
To explore this further and from new angels I have been having some really stimulating conversations with Tara Swart, (formerly a psychiatrist and neuro scientist and now a leadership coach) and Ruth Stenholtz (formerly a legal general counsel and now a business ethics consultant and executive coach). We have been looking at the issue from a psychological, neuro scientific and business perspective. Here is my initial take; in an M&A situation leaders and managers revert to an almost Neanderthal stance. It’s all about the hunt and the kill. Something goes on in their brains that stops them from taking account of the subtle signals and makes them scoff at any data they don’t consider hard and factual. They want to be seen as winners, bringing home the saber tooth tiger so everyone around can look on in awe!
Tara, Ruth and I taking this work forward to see if we can put something together to help folks like us make the soft stuff hard. Our initial focus is on the M&A space. Our aim is to find a way to help companies not lose value through M&A activities but make them truly transformational to the organisation. Our work is in its early stages but if you want to find out more then let me know.
M&A’s are just one area where we struggle to give true voice to the soft stuff. It would be great to hear from you about how you have been able to convince executives that even if the data is not hard and factual, it is still valid and can have a positive impact on critical business issues that drive top and bottom line results, and therefore warrants their time, focus. Lets get the discussion started!