As discussed in part 1, the British seem unable to “think things through”. Here are twelve major brexit problems which those in charge of implementing whatever is agreed will have to face.
Even though I am no fortune teller, this is so close to fact, rather than opinion, that senior politicians might as well assume it is completely true. This is because large projects always have these problems and this is because the client places undue pressure on the implementer while having little or no clue about what the implementer’s job is.
Added 5 august: Andrew Adonis has identified some major problems with the negotiation processes, before one even comes to any implementation stages. [*1]
I suggest that few, if any, of these problems will be addressed before they raise their ugly heads. To ignore them will be a political decision made by people who, on the whole, don’t even understand what these problems are and, worse, what their implications are. This is itemised as a problem in its own right below.
1 No leadership
This is obviously a problem that has already raised its ugly head. And it is a problem which many political bosses won’t acknowledge or even understand exists. However, no UK politician from Mrs May, the prime minister, down has shown more than the slightest of intermittent streaks of leadership. Just check the basic behaviours described in my post What do managers who are leaders do that managers who aren’t leaders don’t do? and see how much the UK’s current bosses, in all political parties, measure up. It is obvious that when a politician replaces leadership with self-interest, nor is the sharpest knife in the drawer, the project will be fatally crippled.
2 Development, and even implementation, will start before negotiation is finished
As I have said, part, but certainly not all, of the work in this period will be negotiation. It seems inconceivable that UK politicians will be content to wait until the negotiation process is finished. They will demand work be started on those areas which appear to have been agreed as soon as possible. This means that subsequent negotiations, which reflect on areas whose implementation has already started, will necessitate work being undone and redone differently.
Since all changes cannot possibly go live in the same minute of 2019 (or whichever year it is delayed to), there will be a period of years in which a lot of negotiations will be going on—moving forward (or not) at various rates.
Individual changes throughout government and business will be happening all over the place; changes will be made in some areas that affect other areas, though these dependencies won’t have been noticed and/or the people responsible for both areas have no consistent way of communicating with each other.
3 Communication will be inadequate or non-existent
The communication channels that are set up (if any are) will be inadequate, and therefore inadequately used.
Hundreds of people will be in charge of greater or lesser parts of the process. There will be people who are only in charge of other people who are in charge of functional areas. There will be people who just sit on committees or subcommittees, or are advisers and consultants, internal and external. How will they communicate effectively with each other? With the hundreds of stakeholders?
At a detailed level, noone will know what is going on other than (one hopes) on their own patch. The opportunities for miscommunicating to senior managers, and to high profile politicians, are legion, and will be exploited.
4 Expertise will leave
Because it is such a long process, experienced people will leave part way through, through retirement, illness, promotion (if they’re lucky) or just being fed up―there’ll be a loss of expertise.
Had this been a project undertaken while the UK was still a member of the EU, the UK could have counted on the assistance of non-UK EU nationals who could have been formally or informally co-opted onto the project. As it is, the hapless chief negotiator, Mr David Davis…
5 Influential people will demand changes
Governments, even ruling parties, may/will change during the course of the transition period, threatening or demanding changes to the plan (if there is one) or just to what’s going on.
6 Stakeholders will become belligerent
As stakeholders realise their needs weren’t canvassed, and haven’t been addressed, they will start to make trouble.
7 The implementation period is ever-changing
I can’t emphasise strongly enough that the ever-changing environment is the hardest to manage.
As the transition period progresses, every month―every week―will be different from all other months and all other weeks, past and future. Managers and politicians will have to manage an ever-changing process, one that is always new and of which they have no experience and for which they have made no preparation.
People will tire and make mistakes; they’ll become disheartened by the constant sniping from the media and possibly the opposition parties, if there are any.
8 Too many interdependencies to check
In my little example, there’ll be some puzzles for sure: do you run down the old system before you’ve implemented the new? Or do you implement the new before you’ve closed down the old? Do the first and you risk an extended period without any system if the roll out of the new hits problems (likely). Do the second and you have a new system with no data. Do you attempt to do both at once?―maximum chance of trouble.
If you have ten things to do and each one of them might have a bearing on any or all of the others, there are 45 possible dependencies that need to be checked—and that’s before you consider those situations where three or more of these things to do all interact with each other in a way that demands sorting out.
If there are a thousand things to do (and I suggest brexit is far bigger than that), any one of which might affect any of the others, there are 499,500 possible dependencies to be checked. And, again, consider situations where three or more actions collide and the number of dependencies needing to be checked, and possibly resolved, rises to the tens or hundreds of millions.
With the best will in the world, checking all interdependencies for potential problems is obviously impossible. So the checks will remain undone, and any number of nasty situations will arise without warning. Managing the implementation of the agreement will become a sideline. All managers will be continually firefighting these unforeseen outbreaks. Hard to do with the highest quality people, but see who we have lined up for the job (at (10)).
In brexit, there will be thousands, possibly tens of thousands of activities, or groups of activities; these will result in tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of decisions to be made (even if nothing goes wrong), all intricately connected in an almost unfathomable nexus of interdependencies, and all needing to be communicated to other interested parties—but who are they?
9 Planning will be inadequate or non-existent
Never mind doing it. Planning it will be a task hopelessly beyond the skills of the poor people lined up to do it. Agreeing the plan will be nigh on impossible. So, it won’t be agreed amongst all stakeholders, or even the primary ones. And that will cause trouble as described at (5).
10 It’s simply too big and too difficult
And then we have to look at the people on offer.
Frankly, if this were managed by the most competent and skilled managers in the country, irrespective of party affiliation or previous employment, the chances that the transition stage would come to a satisfactory end—or to any end—are what? Five percent?
This is because, however near-perfect the managers are, each of them will be dealing with dozens of people in third party organisations, none of whom can be assumed to be near-perfect, or anywhere near. In fact, most of these will turn in a humdrum performance that will require micro-managing if they are to finish their contribution on time.
And I haven’t even started on the idea that some people will use this opportunity simply to flaunt their prima donna credentials at the most inopportune moments simply to make life difficult for the transition managers. Why do I say this? Because that’s what people at work do.
11 Too little available talent
However, I doubt any competent independent managers would want to touch this with a barge-pole.
Look at the less than sparkling implementation of IT systems in the NHS (at least one of which, a billion pound enterprise, had to be abandoned at massive cost to the taxpayer [*2][*3]). Look at the time and cost of implementing the changes Carly Fiorino imposed on Hewlett-Packard when she became CEO (which were almost certainly unavoidable).
Who have we got for brexit?: David Davis, Liam Fox, Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Theresa May. Even if the labour party joins in, they’ll bring Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Keir Starmer (at least Starmer has some credibility—as a lawyer).
None of these people has any experience, and therefore any understanding, of management, yet you can bet they’ll insist on micro-managing those who are appointed to manage the transition and bring it about if they get half the chance. This won’t help.
The latter will be drawn from the civil service and, with the greatest respect, few if any of these people have any real relevant management experience. By this I mean they haven’t worked on projects of a similar size, or a tenth of the size, because these projects simply have never existed.
When large projects have turned up, civil service managers, aided by their political masters, have not covered themselves in glory [*1]. This is not something you learn by going on a Prince 2 course.
And if, reluctantly, you also have to accept that most high profile politicians aren’t actually that bright, are venal with a set of interests that starts and stops with themselves, have little or no relevant work experience (of any sort) and are marinated in an unhelpful ‘fight’ approach to talking to others (aka, the “adversarial” system), then it is difficult to estimate how far the project will get before permanently running aground. But not far, I would say.
12 The political masters will be in denial about things going wrong
Partly out of ignorance and lack of understanding, and partly from a naive belief that difficulties go away if you ignore them, political masters will fail to provide the resources (including time) needed to deal with the often serious things that cannot but go wrong. The idea that nothing will go wrong is absurd: this has never happened in any major project since the dawn of time. Let’s build some pyramids. What could possibly go wrong?
[*1] To summarise:
> By March 2019, the UK to negotiate new trade treaties not only with the EU27, but with the 75 other nations with which the EU has free or preferential trade agreement.
> Within 20 months, Britain has to negotiate more than 40 treaties just to stand still. Yet EU negotiations for a trade agreement with the US have been ongoing for four years, involving hundreds of negotiators.
> The UK has few, if any, experienced negotiators (Britain has not negotiated a trade treaty since 1973). The department for international trade (DIT) is instead putting generalist civil servants – including young fast-stream graduates – through short courses in negotiation techniques: hardly a substitute.
> A chief negotiator cannot be found.
> There is also a need for experienced trade lawyers. DIT has virtually none of those either.
(Britain couldn’t leave the single market if it tried, Andrew Adonis, the Guardian, 4 august 2017)
[*2] “An abandoned NHS patient record system has so far cost the taxpayer nearly £10bn, with the final bill for what would have been the world’s largest civilian computer system likely to be several hundreds of millions of pounds higher, according a highly critical report from parliament’s public spending watchdog.” (Abandoned NHS IT system has cost £10bn so far, Rajeev Syal, the Guardian, 18 september 2013)
[*3] “When you consider the amount of planning done by experts and implementation by skilled workers, you would think that disasters would be rarer than they are. But things go wrong… Frequently, the reason is poor planning, or workers not sticking to the plan, which leads to bad communication, unrealistic timelines and the overlooking of important details…” This is salutary reading: Biggest UK Government Project Failures (Matthew Hayhow, Software advisory service website, 17 may 2017)
© 2017 Jeremy Marchant . extended 15 . 16 . 17 . 21 . 22 july . split into three pages 23 july . updated 23 july . 1 . 4 august 2017 . image Free images
Please see About this website for guidance on using this material.