Post merger integration in lockdown?

Project management and communication planning must reorient themselves in the lockdown. More talking, more writing, more checking!

// IT Mergers & Acquisitions, IT Processes and Organisation, IT-Outsourcing

Hand on heart: Did you have the outbreak of a pandemic on the risk list of your last PMI project? For example, how do you roll out work equipment to new employees in the IT department while the workforces in the Mediterranean countries in particular are suddenly quarantined at home? From these and many other new problems of a current PMI project affected by the pandemic, many lessons learned can be derived, from which lessons can be learned not only in pandemic times. Especially project management and project communication are strengthened with new insights for the next PMI project - in the lockdown or in the world after Corona.

Post merger integrations are always special

PMI projects can  be a particular challenge even without a pandemic and lockdown.  They often come as a surprise to IT departments and have demanding deadlines.  The M&A project inquestion  involved the carve-in of a power plant manufacturer with subsidiaries in Germany, Italy and Spain into a large international energy group based in the Ruhr area. The IT department of the absorbing parent company was commissioned with the complete IT integration of the new locations and was supported by the IT management consultancy noventum consulting from Münster .

COVID-19 was not mentioned at the time of the project start last summer. Up to the point when the pandemic hit Europe, it was still a  "normal"  IT M&A project, which was in the process of  carrying out   the most important preparations and planning for a cut-over at the beginning of April 2020 . A detailed target concept  described the planned approach of the  various  IT disciplines involved.  Starting with the connection of international locations, through the  delivery of new  PC workstations and the integration of  a three-digit number of different  applications. The first weekend in April was already set  as the  concrete cut-over date  and was  already  within reach when the  lockdown came at the beginning of  March. As is well known,  the  people  in the Mediterranean region were particularly  affectedby  this.

Post merger integration from the home office?

The effects of the lockdown were  serious for all areas of life and of course for this project . First of all, the IT departments - both at the  supplying  and  the receiving company  -  had to  take  care of  getting  their own staff  in the  home office  ready for work. This ubiquitous task  allocated resources to all those involved, including, of course, suppliers and service providers. And: How should workstations  - mainly notebooks -  be handed over to employees while they are sitting in their home office?

Another problem was the literal tearing of  the  supply chains. Promised delivery dates, e.g. for hardware deliveries or line circuits, were revised or simply not carried out. Be it that important components from the Far East were  no longer available or technicians were no longer allowed to disengage. The more links this chain  had, the  more certain was its failure.

Even though all participants already  had experience with modern communication tools such as video or online conferences, it was a change for  many of them  to  have to communicate  with colleagues almost exclusively in this form. The silence post effect was intensified because  it was now  even more difficult to track  the path of information sent from the desk at home   than  was usually the case . Random encounters in the corridor, where the project manager could try out such things, were no longer possible.

And each  individual had to  learn to deal with this unusual and sometimes threatening situation for  himself . From childcare to short-time work - everyone had to set different priorities  at first.

Due to these circumstances, the critical path of the project could not be adhered to on schedule and so the responsible persons decided to postpone the planned cut-over for thetime being until further notice .

Communication and methodology in the PMI project put to the test

Nevertheless: The "new normal" became accepted by those involved within a few days and so the cut-over in mid-May, with only about one and a half months delay, was successfully implemented - for most of them from their home office. Steep learning curves in communication and methodology paved the way. The delivery or handover of the hardware and workstations was a challenge from the point of view of quarantine, hygiene and distance regulations, but was successfully mastered thanks to the cooperation of each individual user.

Once the operational capability for day-to-day business had been established and secured under the new conditions, a new form of project communication was inevitably adopted. Project appointments were carried out exclusively online, and discussions with colleagues "in the corridor opposite" were also held. The flipchart or whiteboard on the wall was replaced by online editing of shared documents. However, the quality of the online services was still mixed', especially at the beginning of the crisis. Cloud-based providers in particular had to  adapt their systems to the sudden rush. Especially online sessions with many participants did not offer a particularly good quality and the participation in such events was exhausting for many. In any case, communication was increasingly in written form, with only the good old e-mail ensuring that all participants really received the same information at the same time. The written word in concepts also took on an even greater significance. The verbal side agreements and detailed information that used to be called "soundtrack" were increasingly  written down in documents and minutes.

Information was distributed in a more targeted and structured manner, the project hierarchy became flatter. An attempt was made to keep the number of participants in online meetings low. The topics to be discussed determined the selection of participants. Bilateral meetings were preferred, even if this meant that the project management had to communicate  things several times. In retrospect, this was a very efficient procedure. Distress led the team  to really  put into practice the virtues of productive meetings  (minimum number of  participants, agenda,  time management, minutes, etc.) , which had always been propagated .

Process reliability in lockdown through project management and quality management

The fact that the entire project team was not able to meet in person after the lockdown highlighted the benefits of proven methods and automatisms, which provide considerable relief even in pandemic-free times . From an unprecedented level of detail in the project plan and meticulous work status control by the project management to a semi-automated, minute-by-minute tracking system,  Each project member was thus informed at all times about the exact status of the work on the change over weekend and knew when their assignment was due.

A further factor for the success of the project  under pandemic conditions was the introduction of additional quality assurance with regard to the verification of the work orders carried out. In particular with regard to the involvement of third parties, notifications of completion of certain assignments, such as lines or hardware installation, were not always correct or complete due to the difficult conditions. A double check by means of intensive  acceptance tests  protected against communication errors .

The lessons of the lockdown: more talking, more writing, more testing!

In summary, the success factors of the project can be described with the following points:

  • Communication between project management and work packages should be more direct, i.e. more frequent and bilateral, and the project hierarchy should be flattened. A sub-project structure that has been drawn in is rather a hindrance in this respect.
  • Go back to the "written word". Record your results, tasks and information even more in written form (emails, concepts, minutes), as detailed as possible. This will ensure that information is transmitted in an unbiased and binding manner. Ensure that all those involved have access to the documents and, if necessary, determine which versions of the documents are binding.
  • The project and cut-over plans should be detailed and equipped with a status tracking system to ensure that all parties involved receive the most up-to-date status of work status.
  • Orders that are executed via supply chains should be double-checked by means of additional test and acceptance criteria. Project managers should not believe that the WAN line is stable until they "have seen it for themselves".

Even without a pandemic sign, these things will have  a positive effect on projects with a large number of employees sitting in different positions.

Nobody knows if and when we will really be restored to a "normal state"  and whether further waves of infection will lead to similarly drastic consequences as at the beginning of the pandemic.  But one thing is certain: pandemics and lockdowns will certainly  now be a more frequent part of risk analyses. With the  experience described here, however, we are perhaps a little better prepared for them .

Above all, Corona has changed the methods of communication. The M&A community should compile their experiences in detail about mergers under Corona, many things are already no longer as they were.

Frank Schlottbohm in: "Standpunkt" in der  M&A Review 10/2020

noventum consulting

Frank Schlottbohm

Management Consultant

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