In 2016 the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union of which it had been a member for 45 years. This event started a change process on an unprecedented scale in peace time Europe. Overnight, the United Kingdom Prime Minister’s became the de facto Programme Director for Brexit. At the time of writing this article, the Prime Minister who was appointed specifically to deliver Brexit has announced her resignation, having failed to secure the UK’s exit from the European Union; and no-one can be sure what shape Brexit will take or indeed if Brexit will happen at all.
Interestingly, it can be argued that the failure to deliver Brexit bears the hallmarks of poor Change Management in multiple aspects. This short article focusses on a few of the dimensions that would apply equally to any large corporate change programme:
- Starting first with scope, the referendum question posed provided no clarity on the detailed outcome sought from the change. The broader objectives of exit and sovereignty were too vague to provide the stakeholders – here the UK public – with a sense of the destination. Without this granularity the scope was interpreted very differently by those who supported the broad objective.
- Next there was critical lack of impact assessment both prior and during the programme itself. This left Business Leaders in particular, but also the country at large, unsure of the steps required to adapt to Brexit.
- Stakeholder management was critically neglected. Brexit had been, and remains, an emotive topic for many, with a significant body of the population not on-board with the programme. A great deal more effort should have been expended on building a stronger consensus for the proposed change.
- Unrealistic timetable: the expectation was set that the UK would be leaving the EU two years following the submission of the Article 50 notification. Similar national change programmes could have been used to more realistically benchmark the likely timetable for Brexit. For example, when West Germany set-out to re-unify with East Germany it took 15 years of significant effort to effect the change. To this day the German programme of re-unification continues. Exiting the EU will take years (decades) to fully complete.
- As a direct result of the failure to timetable realistically, several critical milestones were missed and the programme drifted, wasting precious time it did not have.
- The Programme Director failed to implement a suitable recovery strategy and the discontent was allowed to fester whilst discipline broke down spectacularly in the programme team – here the UK Cabinet.
- Resource constraints were overlooked. The Civil Service, the body of people given the task of implementing Brexit, also run the Government’s BAU agenda and given the sheer size of the demand on their time it was unlikely that they would have anything like the capacity needed to deliver Brexit.
- Finally, and perhaps more controversially, the programme exhibited a refusal to re-appraise its position in the light of new information garnered during the early delivery phase. In the case of Brexit, this was particularly difficult, playing out as it is in the full glare of the media. However in the case of any large, multi-year, change programme, a regular review should be undertaken to ensure that the objectives will deliver the anticipated benefits.
These shortcomings are often found in failing programmes and should be managed or remediated by the programme leadership. Brexit has useful lessons for all change managers.