Big Deals

I try to avoid starting off by asking a question, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Is it just me or does it truly seem that in many instances it is possible for business egos to get in the way of business IQs as the size of the business opportunity increases? This big deal blindness is a phenomenon that I have encountered several times in the past. As the magnitude of the numbers being considered for whatever purpose (sales, costs, scope, merger, etc.) increase, there seems to have been some instances in the business past where the momentum of the deal takes over and the basic principles of business analysis and management appear to be forgotten.

This type of behavior does not seem to be confined to any one company or industry, but rather emerges unexpectedly for a while in one place and then just as quickly goes dormant again. But not until after some sort of a business millstone has been placed around the corporate neck. It then takes all of the business’s senior leadership to formulate the path back to recovery. Meanwhile the general process is that those responsible for “the deal” have already declared victory, taken their bows and then very quickly exited stage left.

I am not specifically talking about Mergers and Acquisitions here (M&A) when I talk about things such as the magnitude of the deal, but rather more along the line of basic internal business conduct. However, I think some of the lessons that have been learned by some of these humongous M&A failures of the past can equally be applied to business situations that are more related directly to the operation of the business.

Here are a few lessons for business deals that leaders ought to take into account, at least in my opinion, before they start looking at the next big opportunity, at least in my opinion:

• Unlike the Bob Dylan song (Times They are a Changing), the times are not changing. The same basic rules apply to big epic opportunities as they do to the smaller ones. Profitability still matters. Core competencies still matter. The magnitude of the deal disproportionately increases the risk of the deal if the probability of success is based on a significant change or transformation away from what has been the business’ norm is associated with the deal.

The success of the deal is usually associated with doing something that you already know how to do, to a great extent. Growth and expansion by necessity mean that you need to take on some new aspects and scope with each deal, but unless you are relying at least in large part on your known core competencies, the big deal that is supposed to be a game changer or entry into a new market is usually an even bigger risk.

• In too many instances it seems that management may have felt the need to make a big, bold, landscape shifting, game changing sort of deal. This may be as a result of a desire to get into a new market or in response to some sort of internal or external business pressure. The idea appears to be to make a dramatic market statement or splash in order to signal some sort of new direction.

Few businesses do the new, big and splashy right the first time. Unfortunately if the deal is big enough and as a result generates a situation that is bad enough, there may not be the second opportunity to do it right. Change associated with business core competencies or structure takes time. It can’t be forced as a result of a big deal. A certain amount of ego is essential for leadership. Too much ego results in deals where the mouth has written a check that the brain can’t cash.

Deal success usually comes about as the result of doing the basics well. This capability evolves from doing similar types of deals on a regular basis, understanding what your deal or market sweet spot is, and maintaining a stable business approach. If you have been successful doing smaller deals in one area, the chances of having issues with a larger magnitude deal outside of your knowledge area are significantly increased.

• Sometimes deal momentum takes over and supplants common sense. When a large opportunity or deal is first noted, it begins to appear in the various business forecasts. It doesn’t matter that it may be exploratory or of initially low probability. The longer it stays visible, the more it becomes part of the expected fabric of the business. Eventually it becomes expected and sometimes even counted on as part of the business results.

It is very seldom that any amount of caution, qualification or warning can stop this progression. It eventually evolves that big deals that have been around for a while become deals that “cannot be lost”. Once this mentality has set in it leads to a set of seemingly logical steps that culminate in an illogical deal. Costs can be shaved, schedules can be condensed and onerous terms accepted all in the name of getting the game changing big deal done.

This type of deal behavior would normally result in a difficult environment for success if the opportunity was associated with a core competency of the business. When it is associated with a new market or an unproven capability the performance and results are usually not so pretty. The budgets and the schedules are usually the first items to be impacted, with the profitability and customer’s satisfaction very close behind.

Perhaps again we are seeing another business manifestation of one of C. Northcote Parkinson’s Laws, specifically Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, from his 1957 book “Parkinson’s Law”. In it amongst other topics, he examines the amount of time and attention that businesses spend on smaller (trivial) items as opposed to the larger, more complex and more important ones. In summary:

“He dramatizes this “law of triviality” with the example of a committee’s deliberations on an atomic reactor, contrasting it to deliberations on a bicycle shed. As he put it: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.”

Big deals are an important aspect of any business’s growth plan. They require a significant amount of discipline as businesses seem to get more anxious to close them, the closer they believe they are to closing them. (Perhaps this can now be cited as Gobeli’s Big Deal Corollary (BDC) to Parkinson’s Law if Triviality.) This phenomenon can result in final agreements that are far from the original big deal concept and far from beneficial to the business. The risk associated with the big deal increases rapidly if it is outside of the business’s normal operating area, or is associated with senior management’s plan for the transformation of the existing business or business model into something else.

Big deals are quantum events that must be given at least the same amount of deliberation if not more than that associated with the standard business conduct, regardless of the business’s desire or dependence on their closure. If you are going to try to successfully change the business, it is also probably better to not start the change, or make it dependent on a big deal.

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