Acquisition is a poor substitute for strategy

ImagesGary Hamel was a dream client. We represented his consulting firm, Strategos, a while back and I have to tell you, Gary was a walking, talking sound bite.

Gary, you see, counseled Fortune 500 companies how to either create, or recreate, their strategic planning processes. So, he knew all there was to know about outflanking the competition. And, whenever one major company acquired another, we'd offer up Hamel as a 'contrarian thinker' to the business press. They dug Gary's words because, while some Harvard professor would praise the acquisition du jour and a Booz-Allen consultant would rave about the added scope and reach of the new combination, Gary would call the machinations a poor substitute for strategy.

I thought about Gary the other day when I read about Marissa Mayer's acquisition strategy at Yahoo.

Since becoming CEO and banning telecommuting, Meyer has also been gobbling up small, technology firms such as Summly, Stamped, OnTheAir,, ProPeld and Jybe.

Mayer's made the acquisitions for two reasons:

– To play catch-up with rivals Google and Facebook
– To infuse some semblance of entrepreneurial spirit in Yahoo's ossified hallways.

The first strategy may work, but I'd never buy another firm in the hope that their workplace spirit would magically lift mine. That's a very, very poor substitute for strategy and a desperate attempt to change embedded, decades-old patterns of behavior.

One entrepreneur told the Times he was being simultaneously courted by Facebook, Google and Yahoo. The first two companies dazzled the guy, and impressed him with their due diligence, saying they, 'basically know what size underwear I wear.' Each organization was also buzzing with activity and the reception areas stocked with shiny, new tablet computers.

His Yahoo experience was the exact opposite. The entrepreneur arrived to find an empty parking lot and deserted offices. He checked in on dusty, clunky desktop computer that ran outdated web browsers AND the Yahoo executives with whom he met had no clue who he was, or how his business model might fit within their disorganized organization.

As Colin Gillis of BCG Partners said, 'If you are a quality start-up, Yahoo is still not the place to be.'

And buying smaller, B-level technology start-ups believing they'll instill a robust entrepreneurial spirit is a pipe dream. An organization either has that spirit in its DNA, or it doesn't.

Snapping up a start-up here and there may make Wall Street happy, but Ms. Mayer will soon discover her buying binge is a poor substitute for strategy.

Where's Gary Hamel when you need him?

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