It’s yet another crunch week for the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, as she faces a further pile-on in her attempts to get a Brexit deal across the line. As far as change projects go Brexit is the ultimate poisoned chalice.

Ah, Brexit – where to begin? It’s proving to be a cautionary tale for the ages about what happens when fundamental project governance and sound process surrounding change is neither followed nor respected.

In fact, Brexit has given us many examples of what not to do when it comes to managing and delivering change. The 2016 Brexit referendum sought to give the UK a voice in whether to remain part of the EU or go its own way, however the negotiations within Britain and the EU have become something of a soap opera. The world is now looking on in disbelief as a once robustly governed kingdom races headlong into a fairly significant act of self-harm if the pundits are to be believed.

All a bit of a palaver really which may have been avoided if handled differently

From the perspective of managing a significant change – something all businesses and organisations are called on to achieve on a regular basis – could there be some Project Management 101s that might have, just maybe, made the process a little more effective?

Think three basic fundamentals: Requirements gathering, stakeholder management and how to set a realistic go-live date without detonating the whole project.  You could argue that politics on the scale of Brexit and the challenges we see in projects are poles apart – but are they really?

Requirements are Never A One Liner

Recap on Brexit: It’s the British Exit from the European Union, of which it had been a member since 1973 and thanks to the 2016 referendum is seeking to divorce.

‘Brexit’ is a one-word requirement – well, in current-day parlance, a mashup of two – that attempts to overly simplify what will be an enormous and complex legislative and economic change for one of the world’s largest economies into six letters. But what does the one-word requirement ‘Brexit’ actually mean in desired outcomes for the voters?

As we are finding out, it means many things to many people and often these things are completely at odds with each other. (We will spare everyone the explanation of the Northern Irish Backstop – mainly because we don’t quite understand it either).

And here in lies the first issue with the process. As much as Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories thunder on about ‘Brexit meaning Brexit’ (see, it’s easy to fall into the trap), what they have failed to do is follow one of the first rules of managing change. That is, to gather the detailed requirements to understand the what, then for good measure go back to the stakeholders (essentially the British people) to have them endorsed.

Having failed to capture and communicate the detailed requirements of what leaving the EU actually meant prior to commencing negotiations, the British Government is now stuck in the unenviable situation of having developed a solution with no agreed requirement to match it to. This has, of course, left nobody happy.

Oh, unless of course you listen to the shrill chorus from the hard-line Leavers protesting outside parliament that Brexit means Brexit … rinse and repeat.

Change Requires Bringing People Along

There are many stakeholders involved in Brexit – in fact there are more than 46.5 million Britons who make up the eligible voters in a country where voting is voluntary. During the referendum just 71.8% of registered voters completed the Brexit ballot, with 51.9% voting to leave and 49.1% wanting to remain. On paper, you can say the electorate voted leave and that should be respected even if by the narrowest of margins.

But here’s the rub – and the second issue for Prime Minister May. Her primary focus in terms of stakeholder management has been almost exclusively upon the leave voters with the common refrain she is ‘’executing the will of the people’’. However the real numbers tell a different story.

Of the 46.5 million eligible voters, 17.4 million voted to leave. Thus the majority of the stakeholders, a whopping 29.1 million voters, either voted to remain or were so disengaged at the time they failed to provide an opinion at all.

The leave voting block is thus hardly a majority view when looked at through the prism of the entirety of the 46.5 million stakeholders.  This leaves a considerable number of potentially hostile stakeholders to bring along for the journey and to build a consensus to help deliver a successful Brexit project. These ‘other’ stakeholders, due to the sheer number of them, needed special attention to get them engaged if the project were to be successful, not to be ignored as seems the case.

It can be argued that by ploughing ahead in a blinkered manner that failed to listen to the voices from the other side represents a myopic view of stakeholder management: focusing on only the group that favours a particular agenda rather than building consensus across all stakeholders that will be impacted within the project.

Failing to engage all stakeholders to get them on-board with the change – especially those stakeholders who may not have been originally in favour of the project – almost always runs the significant risk of generating push back from this cohort making project execution significantly more difficult.

The Brexit push back is now in full swing as the non-leave stakeholders began to understand the implications of what a separation from the EU really means for Britain and they have started to flex their muscle. The lack of stakeholder engagement and the inability of the May Government to build consensus has now led to multiple defeats of Brexit bills on the floor of parliament, nearly 1 million protestors taking to the streets of London and even an online protest poll that has surpassed 5 million votes to date.

Beware Setting a Hard Deadline

If we were to look at all of the missteps that the Brexit campaign has taken, locking in the go live date before knowing what is required to deliver the relevant outcomes – the actions, time, effort, and resources required, for example – is perhaps the greatest rookie error of them all. We see this in project delivery all the time.

By all means, consider publishing an indicative go live date with suitable caveats built in for discussion, but never lock down the date unless there is confidence that the requirements are clear, fully scoped and can be met with the resources at hand.

With Brexit, it has been done – if you’ll pardon the language – arse-about. The decision to start the clock ticking on a go live date without knowing what was entailed to deliver the Brexit project looks like a collective act of lunacy from the decision makers. It was almost two years ago to the day that the British Parliament voted by almost 5-1 to activate the Brexit date of 29 March 2019 without having any real understanding of what was required to get there.

Locking in an end date after only cursory analysis was lauded at the time as ‘taking control’ when in fact, the truth was quite the opposite. It actually handed control to the EU in the negotiation. In many ways, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a rash and needless decision which has led the country towards a state of panic as the go live date fast approaches with still no workable solution that is acceptable to the majority of the stakeholders within sight.

Where to from Here?

The above is not an exhaustive list of the project management 101 issues with Brexit but it’s a good start. We don’t know which way Brexit will ultimately go or if indeed the Brits will pull the plug on the entire process. We aren’t even scratching the surface in understanding a process that could have very real and serious consequences for Britain’s stakeholders: Its people.

But what is clear is the potential outcomes could be dire indeed. In fact, the already-convened SteerCo that will have to deal with the potential chaos on the streets of Britain – should it crash out with no deal – is planning to meet in, of all places, a nuclear bunker. Furthermore, the project created to clean up the Brexit mess has the moniker of Yellow Hammer.

The only thing we can surmise from the name is that batons will be perhaps substituted for daffodils, as they don’t hurt quite as much as the standard black issue. Let’s hope our British friends don’t have to find out.

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