The M&A climate has been tough in 2012. Not only are fewer mergers occurring, but 50-80% of the completed deals are failing. Whether it’s a clash of cultures, failed synergies, or something in the water, it seems like only a matter of time before you find yourself in the midst of a failed integration.

To help us understand how to avoid failed integrations, we spoke with Danny A. Davis, one of the most respected integration specialists in the UK. Davis is the founder of DD Consulting and recent author of M&A Integration – How to do it from Wiley.

Davis explained to us that one of the most important steps in preparing a successful integration is the act of comprehensive planning. Ill-planned strategy is more likely to derail a merger than any culture clash or issues with synergies. He explained, “The reason people come down to culture and communications is because they are used as excuses when things go wrong. Rather than admitting they’ve done something wrong or that they had a bad strategy, people talk about culture. It is more important to think and plan the integration strategy for the companies, the products, and the people.”

During our conversation, Davis walked us through some of his most important planning techniques. When preparing for a merger, Davis finds it important to consider everything, to begin the process with a standard working procedure, and to plan for the plannable. A few highlights from our conversation are below:

Early Planning Helps You Find the Right Deal at the Right Price:
“I like to start planning as early as possible. Ideally, you would start planning as soon as you decide to buy something. Although you don’t want to spend too much time and money planning (since you are unsure if the deal will close), it is extremely important to do some planning. If you have no plan for the target company, you are going to pay the wrong price and you are not going to be ready to handle the integration. I would do a couple of days planning right at the start. At latest, I would start building a full integration plan around 100 days before you believe the deal will take place.”

Consider Everything when Sourcing Deals and Picking a Target:
“When determining merger criteria, you need to consider absolutely everything. If you were to start with a blank sheet of paper and invent a 5,000 person company, you would need to consider every process and every situation to determine the best strategy. Although you may not ever start with a blank piece of paper, you still need to consider everything. By considering all the necessary elements, you can build the most effective strategy.”

Build a Standard List of Items to Review when Planning an Integration:
“For each merger, I have a list of about 6,000 items to consider. With every new deal, I add a few items. Although deals are always different, and require different plans for different items, we can take a somewhat standard approach to increase efficiency. Many companies start from scratch each time, which costs money.”

“As deals get larger, they becomes more complex and the list changes. For example, with a $5 billion deal, I will likely make plans for each of the 6,000 items on my prepared list. However, if I’ve got a small deal – $5M – $10M – I can quickly narrow the list down to a few hundred items. The rest of the items are irrelevant or not appropriate for that deal.”

Accept the Unknowns:
“As you plan, there will be a whole slew of information that you can’t plan for because your due diligence only throws up a certain amount of information. Although you may have a full plan, there will always be information to find out. It is better to wait until you’ve bought the company to discuss these issues. After the first few days or weeks, you will be much better equipped to answer these questions and issues. In some cases, the target company may have already thought about the issues and you can adopt their strategies.”

Early Planning Makes You an Effective Decision Maker and Executor:
“If you have a strong plan established, you can communicate effectively right off the bat. Many problems in deals originate from indecisiveness. Good planning and early planning leads to quick decision making, quick delivery and good communications.”

The strong foundation of effective decision making and good communications prepares you to handle the typical challenges of post-merger integrations. We plan to continue this conversation with Davis and publish an article next week discussing the typical challenges found in a post-merger scenario – especially around planning for integrating divisions, dealing with internal politics, and what you should focus on first.

Read the rest of the conversation here!