Here’s a situation I’m sure will be familiar to many of you. You embark on a major organisational change programme. At first things go well but soon you run up against a problem. There are important decisions that need to be made but the overall strategy isn’t clear. How can you restructure an organisation, re-design processes or implement a major system (or even all three at once) without understanding the overall direction of the company? At some point people start asking, “Why are we doing this? What’s the purpose?” Questions get referred up the line and nothing comes back.
This goes on for a while until a bullish and task-focused programme manager (who has been given the role for precisely those reasons) tells everyone to stop whinging and navel-gazing. There are deadlines to meet and work to be done so just get on with it. Like good soldiers, everyone rallies round and a period of feverish activity begins. But, sooner or later, the same problem comes back. You are trying to make far-reaching operational decisions in a strategic vacuum.
Usually, one of two things happens. Either the project grinds to a halt or else the tyranny of the deadline takes over. Senior executives make policy decisions on the hoof just in the interests of getting something done. You bang in the new structure or system and hope that the problems will sort themselves out somewhere along the line. I say ‘bang in’ because it often feels as though you are hammering a large peg into a wrong-shaped hole. Eventually, the organisation’s strategy evolves and it does develop a long-term vision. At this point you realise that, had you known some of this, there are things you wouldn’t have done and decisions you would have made differently. This is why organisations find themselves making the wrong people redundant, building offices where they don’t need them and implementing systems that are obsolete a year after going live.
Of course, some of this is inevitable. The world changes and sometimes it outruns the careful plans you have made. Most well-run organisations aim to keep such risks to a minimum, though. Sequencing is important. Kicking off an expensive operational change programme while not being clear about why you are doing it is rarely a good idea.
Yet this is exactly where the UK finds itself now. We have to make decisions on all sorts of fiendishly complex detail, from hundreds of trade deals to thousands of regulations without actually being clear what sort of country we want the UK to be and what sort of relationship we want to have with Europe. Every week, something new comes to light. “Euratom, is that a big deal then?” ask the MPs who voted to leave it. “Oh dear, lots of clever people are saying it is. Not sure we really wanted to do that.”
“What do the British want?” ask exasperated EU officials. We don’t know, of course, because we are working in a strategic vacuum. We have never discussed what the UK might look like after leaving the EU. Apart from concerns about immigration and, perhaps, about globalisation, it’s not clear why people voted Leave. It’s not even clear what those who led the Leave campaign want, as Stephen Bush says:
[M]ost Leave-backing Conservative MPs don’t really have a plan for after Brexit: leaving is a destination, not a staging post to anything else. It is the end of the process, when of course the most important questions around Britain’s Brexit deal hinge on the shape and size of the British economy and the direction of British policy afterwards.
Like those bull-headed project managers. We’re doing it because we’re doing it.
Yesterday’s report by UK in a Changing Europe assessed the consequences of failure to reach a deal with the EU. One of the authors, professor Anand Menon, concluded:
’No deal’ doesn’t mean the country would come to a stop. But even under relatively benign conditions and with time to prepare, the impacts would be widespread, damaging and pervasive.
Yet the less clear we are about what we want, the more likely we are to get something we definitely don’t.
Some have suggested we need a national conversation about post-Brexit Britain but it’s a bit late for that now. Imagine you are an executive kicking off the biggest organisational change programme in your organisation’s history. The system providers, building contractors and other suppliers have all been locked in and there are legally binding deadlines. You have committed hundreds of people and millions of pounds. Then you say to your exec team colleagues, “I think we need a company-wide conversation about our vision, purpose and future direction.” You’d probably be looking for another job soon afterwards.
The time to have had that national conversation was before the referendum. David Cameron set us off on this path with no thought to where it might end and no contingency planning. He lost and the people who won have no idea where they want to take us. The opposition are almost as clueless. No political leader is giving us any idea of what Britain outside the EU might look like. This is no position to be in when going into negotiations with an organisation like the European Union.
As Mr Barnier says, the clock is ticking. KPMG recently published a Brexit Navigator with decision deadline dates. To be sure of being able to continue their operations in the EU there are a number of things that different types of organisation will need to decide. Because of the lead times, to make sure everything is in place by March 2019, these decisions need to be taken well in advance. According to KPMG, the first of the deadlines are in September of this year. In short, then, when people get back from their summer holidays they will need to start making calls on what they do next. The less clear the government’s direction is, the more likely firms are to mitigate their risks by moving activities to the EU. That applies also to EU companies trading with the UK. If the UK looks like it might become a difficult place to do business, they will look elsewhere. Businesses can’t wait for clarity from the government. They need to make decisions now.
Making decisions in a strategic vacuum rarely leads to good outcomes. But, as David Brent would say, we are where we are. As ever, the soldiers will soldier on and do what they can. Civil servants, companies and public sector bodies will try to make the best of it, second guessing what might happen and making decisions in the hope that they will turn out to be not too wrong. That is what people do when there is no direction from their leaders.
By the time we leave the EU we will be thoroughly sick of wartime metaphors and appeals to the Dunkirk spirit. The analogy doesn’t work. In the Second World War the objectives were clear and we were led by people who understood what needed to be done. Now, we are leaderless and visionless. There will be no hero’s welcome for the little ship of Brexit. It is adrift on an open sea, rudderless and heading for God knows where.