Motivating Teams During Major Changes: The Merger of Two Aerospace Giants
by Larry Butler, Steven W. Flannes Ph.D.
The following case study examines the merger of two aerospace organizations, highlighting the actions that were taken to insure team member motivation during the most challenging of times. The motivational lessons learned are timeless and can be applied to any number of industries and organizations.
Author Larry Butler worked a few years ago as a facilitator on the project to integrate General Dynamics Space and Missile Systems programs into Hughes Missile Systems (now Ratheon). Hughes had purchased a number of defense programs from General Dynamics. The programs included Tomahawk, Stinger, Ram, Phalanx, and Standard Missile.
Obstacles to Project Success
By way of background, this project faced the following seemingly insurmountable obstacles:
- At the time, the aerospace industry was in disarray given intense downsizing pressures resulting from a significant reduction in defense spending at the end of the Cold War.
- Prior to the acquisition by Hughes, the two companies had been fierce competitors and strongly disliked each other. Now they not only had to work together but also were charged with creating a new and hopefully better way of operating these programs.
- It was necessary to physically relocate these highly complex and technical manufacturing processes from California to Arizona and do so in the face of intense time pressures.
- These programs also faced an exceptionally powerful and skeptical customer (the U.S. Navy) who, at best, was very wary of the physical move of the programs from California to Arizona.
- Adding incredible pressure to this process was the looming decision by the Navy to choose a single source provider for Tomahawk within the year. (Both Hughes and McDonnell Douglas were manufacturing this weapon system and only one would be chosen to continue manufacturing Tomahawk.) If Hughes lost this single-up competition, the rationale for its acquisition of these programs would be put in doubt.
- There were huge people issues. Seven months after the acquisition was announced, only 30 or so of the most senior managers in the two companies knew whether they had jobs or not. In effect, none of the people working directly on the program transition teams knew whether they would be permanently assigned. Everyone knew that a significant number of current employees would not have positions at the end of the transition process.
The Process: Key Aspects for Motivation
As part of the transition process, each missile program defined the critical elements necessary for a successful transition. Each transition team had one person from General Dynamics and one person from Hughes representing each critical element. There were 11 to 14 critical elements for each team depending on the program or process being transitioned.
In reviewing what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles to maintaining team member motivation, success looked to be impossible. Yet, team member motivation was preserved, and the transitioning of programs was successful. The five most significant motivation-related lessons learned are listed below.
1. The need for a well thought out and articulated planning process. The planning process every team went through needed to make sense to the people involved. The people charged with implementing the process viewed each of the many steps in the process as important.
2. The need for a clearly defined, important end objective. All team members participating in the process needed to understand why it was critically important that a smooth program transition take place. They needed to understand this importance on both a programmatic level and an individual level. Significant efforts in communication were directed toward developing this understanding. Gaining this understanding gave team members a reason to keep producing, even under tough conditions.
3. The need for clearly defined interim objectives. By going though a tight review process, each step of which had specific deliverables, every person on a critical element sub-team had immediate tasks and targets to achieve.
4. The need for highly ambitious (almost unreasonable) time frames for completion. By placing stringent time constraints on a reasonable process, a real sense of urgency for the task was developed with little time left to focus on issues extraneous to the immediate task. Often, team members' motivation during big transitions will lag if they have too much time to think about the uncertainty that they all face. Old grievances can surface, and these can become a distraction to keeping the project going forward.
5. The need to create and build a team environment. The organization felt the only way to accomplish its goal was through a team effort. Bringing together initially suspicious and insecure representatives from the two organizations and reforming them into a cohesive and unified team was critical to the success of the process.
Hughes successfully transitioned each program and was ultimately chosen by the customer as the single source provider for Tomahawk.
Room for Improvement: What Could Have Been Done Better?
Though the transition was successful, it could have even been more successful. Significant issues were not handled particularly well. Five valuable lessons learned emerged.
1. In large, complex integration efforts, senior management needs to provide visible leadership. In this merger, teams spent an inordinate amount of time speculating and complaining about the lack of leadership from the top of the company. Active and visible leadership, if only by showing a day-to-day interest, may have helped alleviate some of the frustration and anxiety that permeated the teams.
2. Major attention needs to be paid to the people dimension of a transition. In this case, the customer raised concerns about the lack of focus on people issues. We believe that a thorough planning process needs to be applied to the people side of the project as well as the technical side of the project.
3. Facilitation is key to successfully transitioning the programs. Process facilitators were chosen from within General Dynamics and Hughes and from outside, independent firms. Both types of facilitators (internal or external) have their value, but a conscious choice regarding the source of the facilitators should be made. Some facilitators were not as effective with certain teams as were other facilitators, thus holding back the progress of the project. Think through the choice of facilitators carefully. issues.
4. It is critical for the facilitators' role to be understood by the team at the outset and enough time be given for team leadership and facilitators to establish a strong working relationship. It is difficult, if not impossible, to play catch-up if a good working relationship is not established. Team leadership and facilitators needed to spend more time before the process started to establish relationships, decide how to work together, and agree on mutual expectations.
5. Choosing the team leadership is critical to success. This needs to be done most carefully, focusing on who is best qualified to accomplish transition objectives. In this case, one team leader was chosen who had no involvement in prior day-to-day leadership of the program. This was a strategic decision, as program management did not want the leader encumbered by how we always did things. Other team leaders came from past leadership roles within the program. Each choice was successful tactically, but it is important for those making this decision to fully understand the expected result and what leader can best achieve that result.
Implementing successful projects is a daunting task under the most benign circumstances, and is even tougher during times of complex change as described in this case study. However, it is possible to achieve successful project implementation under trying circumstances by following some of the lessons enumerated in this article.