Brexit: A Project Manager’s view

Brexit Project Manager view
Whatever you think of Brexit, there is one point which cannot be argued about it; that the Brexit process is a project itself – according to the Project Management Institute, an activity that has a start and an end, is geared towards delivering a specific set of outputs to specific standards and needs its own resources to do so [1] . Using 3 principles of “good” projects from my project management experience as benchmarks of good project management practice, I set out below a few thoughts on Brexit project performance to-date.

1. A project must have a business case, a “theory of change"

in other words, stakeholders need to be clear on why a project is taking place, its risks, what it will deliver and the outcomes those deliverables will seek to meet. Three years on from the Referendum, it is clear that this project never started with a clear view of aspirational outcomes nor deliverables to get to these. Never mind the British Parliament not being able to agree a position to support a few months ago, the British public itself is still as split as it was three years ago – a YouGov/UCL survey in May 2019 suggests that 46% of respondents prefer to Remain in the EU, 32% prefer “No Deal”, 13% a softer Brexit and 9% Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement[2] . Three years on, the “theory of change” for Brexit seems to be as foggy as ever despite us being less than 100 days from October’s exit date.

2. A project must review previous environments it can draw lessons from

In November 2018, Jo Johnson MP, the current PM’s brother accused the government of “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis” (Jo Johnson had quit the government to support a second referendum but is now a Cabinet Minister in his brother’s “no deal” government). During the Suez crisis, Britain over-played its hand and came to the limits of its power when on threat from the US of crashing the pound, it (and allies) retreated from Egypt resulting to national humiliation and the resignation of the PM, Anthony Eden[3]. Britain should review its history and assess through a lens of realism and evidence, whether its current approach to the negotiations with the EU is reflective of its world status, whether a “no deal” is indeed likely to make the UK the “Greatest Place on Earth” as mentioned by Boris Johnson in Parliament yesterday. Brexit may not be Suez, but in both, an evidence-based assessment of Britain’s role in global geopolitics by Britain’s political class when that was needed, might have saved a lot of the pain that followed.

3. Stakeholders must be engaged:

successful projects identify their stakeholder audiences at the beginning of the project’s lifecycle and engage these effectively from start to end. Part of the Brexit pain to-date for businesses, universities and citizens is that they have not been engaged early enough to allow a sense of “being informed” and room for contingency planning. Negotiations were kept secret for too long and to this day, key stakeholders are unclear about both aspirations and plans.  For some key audiences, it may even be too little, too late if IoD’s research in February 2019 is to be believed highlighting that 1 in 3 businesses in the UK plan to relocate some of their operations abroad or have done so.

As Brexit D-Day approaches, the UK’s aspiration from Brexit is still unclear, the political dialogue appears to still be focused on straplines rather than evidence and key stakeholders remain ill informed. History will judge Brexit and those evangelising or demonising it (if and when it happens). As far as the process goes though and looking at is from a Project Manager’s viewpoint, UK politicians seems to have ignored Churchill’s lesson on planning – “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan”.

[1] The Project Management Institute definition of Project Management can be found accesses through https://www.pmi.org/about/learn-about-pmi/what-is-project-management

[2]  YouGov/UCL survey on preferred outcomes, May 2019 (sample size of 1763 respondents) https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/ete4gzwp4j/UCL_Brexit_190529_w.pdf 

[3] https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/why-was-the-suez-crisis-so-important