If there is a “Big Three” of anything, it never feels good to always be number three.

That was Chrysler’s role in the mid-90’s. It had been their position for decades. Even after the unlikely revival in the 80’s with Lee Iacocca, the auto company was the perennial also-ran behind General Motors and Ford. And they were tired of it. So tired.

This exhaustion festered into a kind of restlessness. And that restlessness catalyzed into bold action — a merger in 1998 with Daimler-Benz. At the time, it was the world’s largest ever cross-border deal. Both parties characterized the arrangement as a “merger of equals.” The idea was that the two organizations would be able to leverage a singular global brand (like Toyota), and the sales would follow. The then Daimler-Benz CEO and architect of the deal, Jurgen Schrempp, even hyperbolized this world domination vision as a “marriage made in heaven.”

The result was far from what anyone would characterize as a healthy marriage. Spoiler alert: The 36-billion-dollar merger was dissolved in 2007 for 2.7 billion dollars.

Why Did the “Merger” Fail?

With such lofty visions and so many smart, capable strategists at the helm, how could they have gone wrong? A lot of analysis has been performed post-mortem with everything from deal manipulation to 9/11 cited as a cause.

What most analysis falls short of revealing are the seeds of underlying failure that were present in the deal from the start.

The two organizations were victims of the big three most common blind spots in mergers and acquisitions. They are the same ones we have seen lead organizations of all sizes headlong into failure. These blind spots are pervasive because they are, indeed, hidden from immediate view for even the most seasoned, intelligent, thoughtful executives.

Blind Spot One: Lack of an understood identity

When analyzing a merger, it is necessary look at how each independent company creates value in the marketplace.

We’re not talking about just the sum of your logo and messaging here. We’re talking about the real, fundamental identity of who you are and what problems you solve at a deep, human level. That’s your brand. In merger and acquisition deals, it’s not just business systems that merge to create a new entity. The respective brands also bring positive and negative attributes to the marriage.

Each company’s brand identity represents what problems they solve at a deep, human level. To what degree would the combined companies represent a fundamentally new identity?

The Daimler-Chrysler deal was lacking in an understanding of how the two companies would be understood at a brand identity level. The same organization that brought you the functional Dodge sedan would also be providing the luxury Mercedes Benz coupe. While it is, of course, possible to have an identity that can contain a wide range of product brands, the deal did not make obvious what the new identity would be.

These questions appear to have been unanswered: What is the posture of this new brand we are creating? How do we create experiences that are in alignment with that brand for ourselves and our audiences? What is the level of equity that our entities have with our audiences?

RED FLAG: Any conversation about brand turns into how to shoehorn two logos or names together.

This blind spot may be one of the most challenging and, at the same time, one of the most rewarding to take on. A deep, meaningful brand investigation can create clarity for the culture of the organizations, and for the brand architecture or system that will be used for multiple product or service brands.

Take heart, though. There is a place you can begin, no matter where you are in your merger or acquisition process. Start with these four simple questions.

A deep look at the underlying form or identity of the joint organizations will reveal answers when nothing else can. It can also help to save you time and energy if you find that, at a fundamental brand level, there is a lack of alignment between the two brands.

A deep look at the underlying form or identity of the joint organizations will reveal answers when nothing else can.

Blind Spot Two: Unexamined long-term vision

No one gets into the merger and acquisitions game to lose money. There is an obvious need for business to increase its market advantage and make a profit. Those are table stakes. However, in our experiences with business leaders, that can be where the work of establishing a purpose or vision for the deal ends. Long-term implications, clarity of vision, the deeper purpose the merger serves in the marketplace — those things remain obscure.

That obscurity of vision led, in part, to the demise of the Daimler-Chrysler deal. Both parties saw the need to gain access to overseas markets. However, what does that mean for production? How would the merger serve to solve for those unmet market needs? Answering those questions in an honest and courageous manner were not part of the deal.

RED FLAG: Both parties are overly optimistic and highly single-minded on making the deal happen.

When every executive is overly optimistic and singular in focus, it creates blinders that block out new information. Like Daimler-Chrysler, you can suddenly be blindsided by issues that, in retrospect, were obvious challenges. Through leveraging strategic foresight, you can remain optimistic while revealing the potential challenges of the vision.

An example of this kind of approach is encapsulated in tools like a Futures Wheel. By allowing a diversity of inputs from the stakeholders with the greatest influence, you can foresee potential challenges and bake them into your strategy.

Blind Spot Three: Lack of cultural alignment

The prevailing business wisdom would have you believe you ought to craft vision, create strategies, then “get buy-in.” Often this buy-in is really code for: How can we make this seem like it is in everyone’s best interest this deal goes through? This would work perfectly if humans were cogs. You could plug them into the new organization, and they would behave or else.

Anyone who has spent time in leadership knows the fallacy of this thinking. However, when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, the impact of culture becomes more pronounced. Usually due in part to a lack of an aligned, long-term vision, leaders forget that culture is what drives the governance and systems. Not the other way around.

RED FLAG: Any conversation about the people in your respective organizations centers on how to get them on board or sell them on the idea.

In the case of Daimler-Chrysler, the lack of forethought into the cultural implications of the deal created a trust gap almost immediately. Chrysler’s lack of formality and focus on socializing ideas met Daimler-Benz’s process-oriented, highly deferential culture. As a backstop, the merger team scrambled to create a cultural alignment strategy that was, of course, not fully implemented. It was simply seen as inefficient. The proverbial ship had sailed.

As we have seen with the organizations we have walked through mergers and acquisitions, once the deal-focused narratives about culture are in place (what the implications of the deal will be for employees), they are exceedingly difficult to undo.

The antidote to this situation is to address the cultural implications at the front of the deal. Take the time to examine what values, behaviors, and norms exist within the present-day culture. Having a values basis for understanding the culture will allow for the alignment of any new initiatives. You can start with this model for values exploration.

The work of aligning to values is an ongoing commitment. However, by making culture a priority in the form of well-articulated values, you can create a more resilient organization that is poised for growth opportunities — especially in the form of acquisitions.

Optimism, critical to leadership success, can also lead to unintended narrow vision when there is a merger or acquisition opportunity.

Your eyes are now open, so no more blind-spot failures

Executing on a growth strategy through acquisition is one of the most involved processes in business. Much like any worthwhile change, it can be draining and rewarding. By being on the lookout for these blind spots, you can make sure you are making the most of every investment decision. As a futurist friend of mine, Jake Dunagan says, “It is better to be surprised in a simulation than blindsided by the future.” It’s far better to face challenges in establishing your identity, vision, and culture than it is to contend with an unforeseen crisis like Daimler-Chrysler.

If you read this far and you are curious how you could start to make these blind spots more visible, please send us a request for a free 60-minute consultation on your growth strategy. Together, we can talk about what hard questions you have yet to ask yourself and your executive leadership team, and how we can help you work through the answers.

This morning an extraterrestial landed near your office. It walked past the security desk and drifted to you. In your lunch, you had packed an orange. The being is transfixed by it. To your astonishment, this extraterrestial can speak English, and it asks you, “What is that thing?”

Now, here, you have a few choices. You can tell the extraterrestial it is an orange. That would tell it “what” the orange is. And that description is the most precise to describe what is understood by observing the outside of the orange.

But, since we are not from Earth, we know there is so much more to the orange than what is visible from its exterior. It has a richness. It has an ancient generational history with our species. It is part of a family of citrus fruits. And the inside of the orange are bright flavors, textures and colors. A freshly picked orange can offer a bouquet of tastes before you even peel it or eat it.

So if we want to be honest with the being from outerspace (and not just precise), we would say something like, “This fruit delivers a bright sustenance to my afternoons, and it’s rich in vitamins and natural energy. We call it an orange. Do you want to try it?”

While that could use some wordsmithing, maybe that would help the being to understand better the thing — in its context. From its inside and from its outside.

Branding ought to offer the deepest, most visceral connection to the thing it is describing.

So often, when we are asked to describe ourselves, our ideas or our organizations, we fall into the trap of being precise. We answer “what” very directly. What are you? I am an architect. What is your company? We design homes (insert features and benefits statements or marketing buzzwords).

At some point in the mechanization of marketing, we stopped communicating in a human-to-human manner. We have instead co-opted MBA platforms to describe something. And those platforms have favored precision over honesty. They sound like, “We do x for y.” They are true, but they are not the whole truth.

Branding ought to offer the deepest, most visceral connection to the thing it is describing. It ought to carry the weight of making that connection felt and understood in a way that is profound. And the place where that weight is the heaviest is in the establishment of a new relationship. It is what marketers and sales folks refer to as the elevator pitch.

By now, you have likely encountered Sinek’s work (or at least his quotes on Powerpoint slides) that encourages leaders to “start with why.” Consider this four-question framework as the how-to manual for doing so.

The people who you meet for the first time are aliens to you and your brand. They are in need of a way in which they can establish trust with you. The best way in which to exhibit that trust is through a kind of honesty that redounds to why you exist, how you behave and what impact you want to have on the world. Those elements allow other humans to connect in a way that is more profound and leads to possibility.

Answering these four simple questions reveals the deepest insights about your brand and creates a basis for building trust.

  • Purpose / Why Question: At a gut level, why does our company exist?
  • Position / How Question: What makes us unique in how we express our purpose?
  • Mission / What Question: How do we hope we are perceived by our audiences?
  • Vision / When Question: In decades from now, what will be different about the marketplace because we were successful in living out our vision?

At first, you can just start with a series of bullet points or ideas within these four questions. It is likely you will have a few thoughts or notions that may not seem connected. It is better to err on the side of idea generation for some time before editing. So don’t worry about being too clever or right. Just be honest and thoughtful in your appraisal.

After you dump out the ideas, you can return to the four areas and formulate a set of phrases. These should be as free from marketing and industry jargon as possible. These four phrases then become the basis of your elevator pitch. In taking the architect example from above:

“I create spaces where people fulfill their biggest aspirations <Phrase One>. I do this by applying deep knowledge of user-centered design principles to the built environment <Phrase Two>. So that people can have transformative experiences at work <Phrase Three>. With the hope that, one day, the built environment will be seen as foundational to organizational transformation <Phrase Four>.”

The four statements together offer audiences the connections for building trust.

Here is the thing no one tells you about brand work: It is never done.

The story you reveal with this kind of approach to the role of brand in establishing trust is an evergreen job.

While that may seem a daunting prospect, it is a great thing. Here’s why: You can always do this work, and it will always matter. Economies, Presidential elections, robots taking over human jobs and calamities can and will occur. And this work will always matter.

Courageously Face Uncertainty

As leaders, the past year tested our mettle in reacting to change. With so much that still feels uncertain around us, it is hard to know how to think about what is next. Just getting through the day has been enough.

But now, things are shifting. And with the world opening back up, the expectations on you as a leader have become even higher. You feel like so many people are looking to you for what is next? How do we back to work? What is our strategy for getting back to normal? How will we deal with the ripple effects from a global pandemic?

Fortunately, futurists have been working for decades on how to make sense of change and methodologies for moving toward the futures we want. While no webinar would ever be able to solve all your challenges, this session introduces you to a new mindset that can shift how you can build vision and strategy in the midst of uncertainty.

In this session, you will learn:

  1. What strategic foresight is.
  2. How you can begin using foresight in shaping your strategies.
  3. A collaborative game for thinking like a futurist.

Session Info
Your Future Now
August 12, 2021 at 12:00pm CST
Hosted by Ashley Dodge and Jeremy Nulik
Zoom Webinar
Register Here

In Moving Past Survival, Institutionalizing Imagination is Indispensable  

For this simulation, you can still imagine that you are you. But instead of now, the year is 1916. And, instead of a mobile device, you are holding a rifle with bayonet. Instead of your home office, you are crouched low in a trench in Northern Belgium. About 100 yards to the East, your enemy is doing the same exact thing – hunched over and staring forward. Both you and your enemy dare not leave the seeming safety of the hole.

And so, you sit. And wait.

This posture should be familiar to you. During our recent crises, leadership of our structures, our policies, our companies and communities are prone to a collective survival mode. Survival mode looks like this: everything is urgent; no one can help you; decisions are reactions; everything is risky; good enough is good enough.  

Given the present-day stress on families and communities, this survival mode is understandable. The issue is that, for leaders, there is little hope for change if you are resigned to entrenchment.

A Strategy for Getting Out of Entrenchment

To shift the collective consciousness of your internal or even external stakeholders, you can embrace a common futurist practice. If you can – even for a week – do this for yourself, you can begin to see possibilities that are not so hopeless as a trench. This technique is inspired by the archetypal scenarios of futurist Andy Hines at the University of Houston. 

  1. Write a story about what the future looks like ten years from now. That trench story, the inevitable, is what you are going for here. Based on all of the assumptions and knowledge you have, write the story of your organization / community ten years from now. Then make a note of as many assumptions as you can identify. Examples: Growth of your industry, increase in viral pandemics. This story is your baseline vision. 
  1. Rewrite two assumptions. Take at least two of the assumptions you made about the future and reverse them. The simplest form of this is to convert an increase to a decrease or vice versa. So, if one of your assumptions is a trend such as “housing prices increase,” then reverse it to “housing prices decrease.” 
  1. Rewrite the story. Using your new assumptions, write an alternative future for your organization ten years from now. Make it interesting or resist the urge to jump to outcomes. Think through what could have happened to get you to this state ten years from now.  
  1. Live into that alternative story. In this alternate reality, who is most impacted? How likely does this future seem to you? How plausible does this future state seem to you?  

If you earnestly implement such a practice, you will be actively acknowledging the existence of alternative futures. That event on the horizon that seemed an inevitability is only one of multiple possibilities. It is an academic effort to understand this in abstract. It is a leadership effort to live into alternative scenarios and gather insight. In enfranchising your constituents, you can ask yourselves at least these two questions: 

  1. What must we be doing now to enable the future we would prefer? 
  2. What must we be doing now to reduce the impact of plausible futures we do not prefer? 

On this basis, you can begin an action-oriented strategic plan with other stakeholders. The foundation of your plan will be from a position of very intentional imaginative work about the kinds of worlds we could see. You can begin to institutionalize imagination as a critical competency for facing what will be a world of increased uncertainty. 

If you want to dig deeper and expose greater possiblity space, there are as many techniques for futuring as there are plausible futures.

Note: The headline is a phrase from Harvard Business Review author and futurist Peter Scoblic.

It turns out that we were made for times like these

Remember (what seemed like ten years ago), back in 2019, when Amazon had the April Fool’s Joke of the year? It started with a Japanese Twitter account, Zozi009, who posted a drone-dispatching blimp bearing the Amazon logo. The airship hovered in front of a mountain range and then ominously floated low above a suburban sky. The drones buzzing about like giant bees from a retail hive.

By the afternoon, a spoiler was posted by the same account with computer-generated renderings of a Lockheed Martin hybrid airship. It was a hoax.

But in the hours between, there was a War-of-the-Worlds-like response. Much like the drones, the internet was buzzing with doomsday implications, memetic interpretations that sometimes included the “Imperial March” from Star Wars.

The Imperial March signalled the collective dread indicated at the alternate reality.

In short, people freaked out.

Those last three words should sound familiar. They are the indicator of a term that Alvin Toffler called Future Shock. It is that rare dread that comes from feeling blindsided. This year, many feel like the tide of uncertainty has crashed repeatedly upon us. Disease, plummeting economies, civil unrest. How are we to lead organizations and communities in circumstances that leave little time for oxygen?

The Institute for the Future has studied the way that humans interpret crisis. You can leverage the three stages with your organization as a frame through which you deal with change together. Instead of trying to quickly solve or fight over the correct response, you can be overt about walking through these stage-gates with people.

(Note: These three stages were cited in a recent ABC-affiliate interview with Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the Future.)

Stage 1: Reaction.

Something disruptive is revealed. It will feel like it is crashing down on you like a mighty retail zeppelin from nowhere, but the truth is that it was always there – like infectious agents, racism, fragile economies. The future was always there and now it is being revealed.

In dealing with reaction, a useful strategy is curiosity. It is having courageous conversations about what is most scary or compelling. Refrain from battling over the correct point of view and remain curious. The more you can do this, the faster you can help people to move to the next phase.

Stage 2: Reset.

Humans start to make meaning of the change. On reflection, there are implications drawn and a narrative begins to form about “how we got here.”

In working through reset, a useful strategy is provoking or inspiring deeper curiosity. The point of the provocation is to reveal where there is agency. If yesterday’s choices got us to this place, what does that mean about today’s choices? If this is our new present-day reality, what could be some potential new realities we could shape? What else could be?

Stage 3: Reinvention.

A plan or design begins to formulate that creates a new basis for reality. It is not like the reality that existed before Stage 1. Action is taken to reshape systems that can better interpret the crisis that led to Stage 1.

In working on this phase, it is most useful to set down new principles for looking forward. What decisions must we make today to support our principles? What would be the signals that we are headed for the kinds of futures we want?

An example of reinvention:

Just this last month, a Stanford lab formulated a way in which drones could hitch a ride on public transportation to save on energy costs and better navigate crowded urban environments. Drone delivery went from the “Imperial March” to the “Are We There Yet?”

Humans were made for crisis and change. Creating capacity for change is making a business more human.

For an example of a leader who creates capacity for change, check out our Webinar with Polly Ruhland, CEO of United Soybean Board:

Polly Ruhland discusses the nuances of human dynamics and change.

If you know of an awesome human who is helping a team / organization / community face the unknown, please send them my way. We are establishing a list of potential guests for a new webinar series.

A conversation with Polly Ruhland, CEO of United Soybean Board. June 26 at 1 PM Central.

You’re likely exhausted. The complexity of the challenges that we are facing as leaders and humans is fatiguing. How much present-day and future change can we honestly take on?

The deep challenges to our business, civic, and personal lives have pushed many leaders into a financial and existential crisis. What has been revealed, perhaps more than anything, is the need to become more familiar with the uncertain and exceedingly complex. How can you remain resilient in leading your organization or community when you are facing so much volatility?

Polly Ruhland, CEO of United Soybean Board, has a reputation for causing disruption — before disruption arrives. Instead of viewing uncertainty and volatility as negative, she deepens the change competency for the organizations and communities she serves.

If you attend this complimentary webinar, you will learn:

  • How to increase your capacity for disruption.
  • What change really looks like and what it involves.
  • Why now is the right time to embrace uncertainty.

A Conversation with Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande, college president, economist, global consultant, and visionary.

Beyond its danger as an infectious agent, COVID-19 has torn apart our plans for the future. It has laid waste to our projections for what we thought would be possible for 2020. Dr. Benjamin Akande will outline the forces that have the most disruptive power for shaping an organization’s future relevance and what you can do to turn constraints into possibilities.

This webinar will be largely interactive and feature a lot of Q&A. So come prepared with questions for a global economist and with the expectation that you will be provoked.

More about Dr. Benjamin Ola Akande:

Dr. Akande, a Nigerian-American citizen is a respected economist, scholar and global consultant to Fortune 500 companies and institutions in the higher education space in the areas of strategy, leadership development, corporate responsibility and market positioning. He served as a director of Ralcorp Holdings, Inc., a $5 billion publicly traded manufacturer of high-quality private food labels, including Post, and has consulted for corporations such as Anheuser-Busch, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Voith, SeaWorld, and many others. 

With the experience to recognize when to take calculated risks and the confidence to make tough business decisions, Dr. Akande believes that the future belongs to those who can see it. He and his wife, Bola, a pharmacist and entrepreneur, have three adult daughters.

Learn foresight practices to shift your mindset from futurist Jake Dunagan

As of this writing, we are nearing one million cases of COVID-19 globally. And we are told this is only the beginning. The global pandemic has shaken our public health systems, our collective sanities, our businesses, our livelihoods, and our identities. Already, we are running out of words for “unprecedented.” Who could have foreseen this level of crisis and its attendant uncertainty?

It turns out that you could have. Or, at the very least, you can, today, adapt a mindset for interpreting and understanding the unknown. For decades, there has been a discipline that helps leaders to have courage even in the midst of volatile circumstances. That discipline is strategic foresight.

Join us for a conversation with accomplished futurist Jake Dunagan, director at the Institute for the Future. Through his practice of design futures, Dungan has helped leaders of organizations and communities to experience simulated alternative future realities. Through experiential futures, leaders uncover new insights, create flexible strategies, and build teams that are better adapted for change.

During this webinar, you will learn:

  • Practices to unlock a flexible mindset for adapting to crisis.
  • How to encourage your colleagues and teams dealing with uncertainty.

The webinar will also feature a Q&A section during which you can ask a futurist, well, anything you have always wanted to ask a futurist.