Think of a small business, say thirty people. Its financial software is out of date and increasingly failing to support all the business’s needs. So the board decides to invest in a new package. An exercise is carried and a new package is identified and purchased. Noone doubts the company’s ability to run the new software or the new software’s ability to support the business adequately.
But there’s a problem.
In order to get from the current state of ticking along (with the old software) to the new state (with the new software) of performing rather better, one hopes, the business must go though a transitional stage.
In this stage the people in the business will have to do lots of things they have probably not done before (and will never do again), and all these tasks will have to be carefully planned and sequenced, so that things get done in the right order.
- Appropriate members of staff will have to be trained: the training has to be devised and delivered
- Other people in the business, the FD, for example, will have to be made aware of the differences the new package will bring (differently laid our reports, the opportunity to do enquiries and analyses differently and/or better); inevitably there will be a vital function in the old system that isn’t in the new one, so a workaround will have to be devised
- The impact on third parties, such as HMRC, will have to be understood
- One hopes people in the business generally will be informed of the changes
- A plan for transferring the data from the old system to the new system will have to be devised, tested (now, there’s a novel concept!) and implemented
- The decommissioning of the old system has to be planned and executed
- A short term plan is needed for what to do when the old system has been decommissioned, but the new one isn’t up and running
- The new system must be implemented in a controlled way, with tested fallback options in place should there be problems
- Clients need to be warned that financial reports and documents will look different
- Suppliers likewise
- And so on, and so on.
I can’t stress enough that it is not just that all these tasks are novel and one off, it is that the whole transition process is novel and one off. Managers will frankly have to wing it on occasions.
Overview of the issues
So we come to the process of the UK extricating itself from the EU (brexit).
It doesn’t seem to be sufficiently recognised, in the media articles I’ve read on the subject, that there are four separate processes that need to be got right: definition, negotiation, development and implementation (by analogy with conventional business projects). Each should be completed before the next is started. Fat chance of that. Even if brexit is defined as a number of separate projects, each of which could be run in parallel with the others, for each project, each the stages should be completed before the next is started.
Where we as far as definition is concerned?
As of 1 august, at least one politician seems to be dimly grasping the problem [*1]:
[William] Hague, a Tory peer who served as foreign secretary under David Cameron, said there was “clear potential for Brexit to become the occasion of the greatest economic, diplomatic and constitutional muddle in the modern history of the UK, with unknowable consequences for the country, the government and the Brexit project itself”.
Thus negotiations can only be started (as has happened). They can’t become substantial or meaningful until the plausible definition is determined.
Even after negotiations are completed, the Brexit processes still has to be developed implemented. To take one of very many examples, whatever the arrangement will be with the ECJ (as agreed in negotiations), it still has to be brought about. If there is no arrangement with the ECJ, then complicated processes will have to be invented and implemented to replace that relationship.
New working practices don’t instantly come into being simply because some politicians have discussed them. I really feel this is something that many commentators and politicians don’t understand.
Where some of the concepts can be easily understood and fought over, this is still happening. For example, Mr Hammond, the chancellor, and Mrs May, the prime minister, (who is on holiday as I write, 1 august) do not see eye to eye [*2]:
The chancellor has been pressing for a simple transition arrangement to maintain trading conditions with Europe for at least two years after Brexit, mirroring arrangements the EU has with countries such as Norway and Switzerland that give them access to the single market.
However, on Monday [31 july] a No 10 spokesman said: “There were reports last week that we were looking for an off-the-shelf model. We are not looking for an off-the-shelf model. Precisely what the implementation model will look like is up for negotiation.”
By “implementation model”, I assume No 10 means the economic model that will end up being implemented, not a model for how it is going to be implemented (this is the thing I keep saying few people are thinking about).
It is understood that Hammond believes the UK cannot negotiate a bespoke transitional deal in the time available—
—nor would it make sense to enter into prolonged negotiations about a temporary arrangement.
The implementation project will be so massive, and so complex, that even highly talented, highly experienced commercial project managers would have severe problems. Expecting this to be managed competently, let alone successfully, by politicians is a joke.
Anyway, let’s get going:
Stage 1: Definition of position
Each party needs to work out what they are actually negotiating for. Mrs May won’t tell the British public, whom she represents, what the UK government position is, or might be.
Speaking to the BBC onboard HMS Ocean in Bahrain, before several meetings with Gulf leaders, May said: “I’m going to keep some cards close to my chest, I’m sure everybody would realise that in a negotiation you don’t give everything away. It’s important that we are able to achieve the right deal for the UK.” [*3]
This was back in december and the ambiguous use of the phrase “you don’t give everything away” tends to tell me that, then at least, she was confused about this definition stage and the next stage.
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have had much progress, as of 1 august, when it comes to unanimity of politicians on what the process and end result will be. In a competent political administration you would expect people to have different, but reasonably well defined, views. They could then have a discussion of some sort about the relative merits of those views and come to a consensus (perhaps) or at least a compromise.This doesn’t seem to be possible with the current tory government, because the individuals concerned haven’t defined clearly and fully what their own positions are. They haven’t got to the arguing stage. The conversations that are going on—or should I call them disjointed, unconnected statements—will never reach a plausible definition of “brexit”.
Stage 2: Negotiation of the terms of the withdrawal
…to everyone’s satisfaction (OK, in a way that manages to lead to a conclusion—any conclusion). This is the first big stage. In this process, both sides will have to accept a changed version of their initial positions. One hopes this will be achieved trough consensus, rather than compromise, but I somehow doubt it.
Just to emphasise that the ministers responsible are still confused—they have elided to the two processes of negotiation and implementation—look at this from Mr David Davis, in june [*4]:
Britain’s Brexit Secretary David Davis claimed his job was more complicated than working for NASA during the moon landings at an event for business leaders on Tuesday.
“Half of my task is running a set of projects that make the NASA moon shot look quite simple,” Davis said, according to the BBC [*5].
“My job is to bring back control of migration to Westminster,” Davis stated on the sensitive issue of migration in the Brexit talks. “It is not to slam the door on immigration. We will bring immigration down but in a way and at a pace that does not cause labour shortages or, worse, undermine the nation’s need for new talent.”
Putting aside the implausible concept of Davis having the faintest idea of what is involved in landing on the moon, he is mixing negotiation (“My job is to bring back control of migration to Westminster”) with development (“Half of my task is running a set of projects”).
Stage 3: Specification and development of the tasks needed to withdraw
Once an agreed position is achieved through negotiation, it has to be brought into reality. The politicians, civil servants and businesspeople in the 28 countries must define the changes needed—operational, regulatory, statutory. It doesn’t just happen because an agreement is signed.
To take one of hundreds of examples: the European court of justice. If the UK backs out of this organisation, then how are the services currently provided by the ECJ to the UK going to be delivered? Or are they not going to be? If so, how will that work? What about, say, Euratom? How will the safeguards provided by the ECJ be replicated there? How is the additional burden on the UK state going to be paid for? Will there be a plan for each component of the ECJ services? Who will draw it up? Who will be responsible for implementing it? Who will be responsible for doing it? How will they know?
Stage 4: Implementation of tasks
As noted above Davis seems confused about this stage and the prior one. Once everyone knows how the agreement is going to be achieved (but in practice the moment that anything is agreed), it actually has to happen. With a project of this scale, implementing the changes is big and time consuming.
However, earlier this month, Mr Michael Gove seemed to think that no more than a “transitional period” will be required because it will be necessary to close the door to immigration over a finite period of time rather than imagining it will happen instantly. (And he only mentions because it will need explaining away to the British public.) [*6]:
The “cabinet is united” over the need for a transitional period after Britain officially leaves the European Union, Cabinet minister Michael Gove has said.
This is entirely a political requirement (not a project management one) and is a perfect example of how projects are impacted by external requirements which are only tenuously related to the job of successfully achieving the change.
I regret that the same confusion affects the normally sound Simon Jenkins in this Guardian article [*7].
In this blog, I am only going to cover the third and fourth of these—the bringing of the ‘agreement’ to reality—because I can bring to it my experience, and that of many colleagues over the years, of specifying and implementing large IT and systems projects, in some cases global.
Here are some of the serious problems
We know that the UK has muddled along, more less effectually, in the past forty years and more, since it joined the then Common Market. It’s possible that, come the day when the extrication process is complete, the UK will be able to muddle along in the new regime. It is not the point of this post to say whether that is true, or not. Let’s assume it is.
The British seem unable to “think things through”. This applies to many commercial organisations—large firms of “consultancies” for example, which seem to collude with their clients when it comes to “thinking things through”. However, all government projects suffer from this paralysing weakness. If the projects relate to weapons, such as Trident, then the government is willing to throw any amount of money at them in order to get them to go right by sheer brute force. Likewise, vanity projects, such as HS2, whether or not there is a cost-justification, are likely to receive inordinate amounts of time and money. But in neither of these areas are things thought through first (which would save a lot of time and money). [*8]
The problems should either be resolved before the implementation starts, or plans for what to do when they arise should be defined and agreed by the major stakeholders at the start.
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.
1 No leadership
2 Implementation will start before negotiation is finished
3 Communication will be inadequate or non-existent
4 Expertise will leave
5 Influential people will demand changes
6 Stakeholders will become belligerent
7 This transition is ever-changing
8 Too many interdependencies to check
9 Planning will be inadequate or non-existent
10 It’s simply too big and too difficult
11 Too little available talent
12 The political masters will be in denial about things going wrong
Here are some of the things that will go wrong
In most projects, such as the installation of a new IT system, or the move to a new building, the biggest headache is what to do when things go wrong. (This is not the same as checking that the plan itself does not generate problems.)
These inevitable occurrences—which come from all the external ‘actors’ and from unforeseen events and interventions that haven’t been anticipated—will require valuable time and resources to be wasted in trying to work out what to do every time something does go wrong.
In the case of a project of the scale of brexit, for each of the thousands and thousands of activities that have the be done, there will be numerous things that can go wrong. Of course, I am confident that, with brexit, a simple solution will implemented: pretend the problems don’t exist. Ignore the possibility that they might arise. Rely on ‘fire-fighting’, as and when.
1 No plan
2 Major players will demand changes after the agreement
3 Any stated deadlines will slip, and keep slipping.
4 That problems will arise has been ignored
5 Knock on problems due to the number of civil servants deployed
6 Failure to consider the devolved countries
7 Perceived lack of funds in devolved administrations
8 Public dissatisfaction with ‘progress’
Frankly, it is inconceivable that the transition stage will not end up permanently stalled, half in the EU and half out. Just like metrication, in fact, but a million times worse.
[*1] Hague backs transitional plan to avoid great Brexit ‘muddle’, Rowena Mason, the Guardian, 1 august 2017
[*2] No 10 contradicts Hammond over ‘off the shelf’ Brexit transition deal, Jessica Elgot, the Guardian, 31 july 2017
[*3] Theresa May calls for ‘red, white and blue Brexit’, Jessica Elgot, the Guardian, 6 december 2016
[*4] David Davis: Brexit more difficult than moon landing, Christian Krug, Politico website, 27 june 2017
[*5] David Davis: Brexit ‘as complicated as moon landing’, anon, BBC, 27 june 2017
[*6] Brexit: Cabinet ‘united’ over EU transition deal, anon, BBC, 21 july 2017
[*7] Brexit without transition is like skydiving without insurance, Simon Jenkins, the Guardian, 21 july 2017
[*8] to be added
> Blog: Why brexit won’t happen―2: Twelve serious problems
> Blog: Why brexit won’t happen―3: What could possibly go wrong?
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