Can culture be acquired or bought?

3 min read

The design landscape continues to change with many acquisitions and mergers taking place. We’ve seen corporations racing to acquiring design firms where they lack design interest or capability, and other organisations integrate design studios into business operations.

What does this mean for a team who are being acquired or integrated, and how can the team navigate the acquisition? What happens to the culture, how does it evolve and what might contribute towards that shift?

The short answer is that if the integration is not given the due care and attention that it requires and suffers from a lack of direction and leadership, then there’s a risk of attrition and a negative response from the team. The adverse reactions present themselves in series of behaviours that could be categorised as a fight, flight or freeze scenario.

Fight; those who oppose the change, believe it was better before the change. For example, when the team size remained lean and small, the processes took less time to deal with, and workflow and tools were easier to use.

Flight; attrition increases as people leave, and this is often due to they like the way things work in the old world. However, they can’t be bothered waiting to see and experience the positive change.

Freeze; the team member that remains stationary and expects someone else to make the decisions starts to look the other way and misses the new direction, communication and leadership.

The S.A.R.A.H Curve is a change management model evolved from other popular models that illustrates some of the possible emotions we go through during any change, for example, when a team member is informed the company they are working for is going to be acquired. The model plots emotion against time and allows leadership teams to understand correctly how their people are dealing with the change. It is the job of the leadership team to get the rest of the team through the curve as promptly and pain-free as possible.

There are five stages in the curve; Shock, Anger, Resentment, Acceptance & Harmony — everyone will go through each stage. Having a vision and strategic plan helps everyone reach the Harmony stage quickly. No vision or plan leaves people in a state of anger or resentment. People who get stuck in this cycle will revert to their fight, flight or freeze mode.

Individuals who immediately embrace the change usually reach the Harmony stage quickly, where they are accepting, identify the opportunities ahead of them and self-mend any damage during the process that’s required to succeed.

To minimise attrition, pain and ensure people reach the end of the curve, implementing a range of supporting activities focused on reevaluating the vision, providing a clear view, creating a sense of purpose, and belonging will help people navigate the various stages of change.

Sometimes the leadership team will have to accept that some people just don’t want to adapt to the changes — in this instance, there are options to mediate and help those people understand the vision, values and purpose to avoid negatively affecting the mood and culture.

We now see more success stories as organisations are starting to understand how to integrate design firms. Accenture’s approach to integration with their purchase of Fjord ensured they had someone who supported the transition into the parent company; what Accenture termed as a ‘shepherd’.

They never forced integration, even to this day. We’ve not been swallowed up, we still have our own brand, rituals, career track and opportunities; we still hire in under the Fjord brand and have our own internship programme. It’s been on our terms.

The integrations and acquisitions will continue as design teams are introduced into business operations–ensuring the team’s experience is a smooth transition and adopting a guided on-boarding process will help everyone navigate the curve to the harmony stage and benefit everyone.

It is possible to retain the good stuff and move into a new structure with the right steps, guidance and activities in place to support the transition and keep the people who will help you succeed.

* Define a clear vision from the start
* Articulate that vision
* Agree on core values–these are front and centre of the culture
* Let culture evolve around the vision and values
* Guide people through the change curve

Don’t force it.