How Good Project Management Could Have Prevented the Mess Known as Brexit

Andy Silber | March 14, 2019

Project Management Brexit
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I’ve just returned from a wonderful week in Ireland. Lots of great music, stout, and tea. The sky was blue and the grass green. We enjoyed wonderful hospitality across the island.

However, the only topic that was discussed more than the civil war of 1922 was Brexit and its impact on Ireland. Everyone I spoke with agreed that if the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) leaves the European Union (EU) it would be bad for Ireland.

For those too consumed with U.S. news to follow what’s happening across the pond, the citizens of the UK, after a contentious campaign, voted on June 23, 2016, to leave the EU in a process referred to as Brexit (a portmanteau of British Exit). The process is scheduled to come to a climax on March 29, 2019, when the UK leaves the trading block covering 44 percent of its international trade. With no rules governing this trade, it’s unclear what will happen next.

If you think Jeff Bezos is in for a difficult divorce, imagine the legal bill for a negotiation involving 28 countries, plus a government that includes all those countries. Regulations that involve goods, services, and people need to be worked out. Almost 3 million European citizens living in the UK might find they no longer have legal rights there and will have to leave.

So how could project management have made things better? I’m glad you asked. There are two fundamental aspects of running any project well that if they had been included here would have made an enormous difference. And, it’s not too late for one of them to save the day.

Risk Analysis

No significant project should be undertaken without a systemic look at how things can go wrong. If you’re designing a new car, might it perform worse in a crash than older cars? If you’re building a house, might it be destroyed in a landslide when the hill above it gives way? Keeping these types of questions in mind, if you’re pulling out of a decades’ old treaty, you can’t just talk about what value the change brings without considering the risks.

One risk was known but not focused on during the campaign: the impact on the island of Ireland.

Let me provide some history. The United Kingdom comprises four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. After centuries of occupation, most of Ireland won its independence and founded the Republic of Ireland, but six counties remained part of the UK. In Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army fought the occupation in what the Irish call “The Troubles.” In 1988, a peace treaty, known as The Good Friday Agreement, allowed for free movement of people and goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which was simple because both were in the EU. However, with Brexit, goods can’t enter the EU (the Republic) from a non-EU state (Northern Ireland) without going through customs. How this is managed has proven to be the biggest obstacle to forging an agreement between the UK and the EU: Ireland will not approve any agreement that violates the Good Friday agreement, and the UK won’t approve any agreement that keeps Northern Ireland in the customs union. Hence the impasse.

The Irish knew about this problem and raised it, but no one in England was listening. If they had done a proper Failure Mode Effects Analysis, they could not have ignored this risk. The process starts with brainstorming every way things can go wrong and continues with how likely the risk is to occur and how bad it would be if it happens. You then rank the issues from worst (bad and likely) to least bad (not that bad and not that likely).

Several risks rise out of Ireland:

  • A negotiated solution will be impossible. (high likelihood, high severity)
  • The Troubles return. (moderate likelihood, high severity)
  • Irish food destined for markets in the UK will be more expensive due to delays at the border. (high likelihood, low severity)

The problem of Brexit in Ireland would have quickly risen to the top. Seeing this was a big problem, the proponents of Brexit would be forced to include a mitigation strategy to convince voters that it wasn’t all that bad.

Stage Gates

Prime Minister Teressa May has negotiated a treaty with the EU that few like. On the issue of Ireland, this new treaty has punted the resolution for a later date, keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union until a resolution is agreed to. This prevents the UK from negotiating independent trade deals with the rest of the world, which is what the proponents of Brexit want. As of this writing, Parliament has voted this deal down twice, with no resolution in sight.

Members of Parliament in London are acting like there are only two choices: ratify May’s treaty that doesn’t really resolve the issue or approve a “No Deal Brexit” in which trade between the UK and the EU stops until a new trade deal can be negotiated and ratified.

If the prime minister was a project manager, there would be a third option: a stage gate review that had the authority and responsibility to kill the project if it wasn’t viable. If one is managing a risky project with lots of unknowns, you break the project into phases. At the end of each phase, you should know a lot more about the risks, costs, and benefits of a project. You gather your stakeholders together, and the project team presents what they have learned as well as their updated risk register, costs, schedule, and features. The stakeholders challenge assumptions, weigh the cost, and decide whether to continue to move forward to the next phase or kill the project. In the context of Brexit, one phase would be the initial campaign. The vote was the first stage gate. The negotiations were the next phase. In a second “people’s vote,” the citizens of the UK, with a much better understanding of the real risks, costs, and benefits of Brexit, would decide whether to move to the next stage. I don’t know how that vote would go, but I do know that the British should be asking whether they should kill this project.

A new Independent Group, made up of pro-EU Members of Parliament from the Labour and Conservative parties, is calling for just this kind of revote, so there’s hope.

What Project Managers Are Doing

Despite the Brexit process ignoring proper risk analyses and stage gate reviews, thousands of project managers in Europe are working on risk mitigations and seeing how Brexit might affect their work. Project managers couldn’t prevent the mess, but I’m sure they’re working overtime to make sure grocery stores have food, pharmacies have medicine, and the road to Calais isn’t clogged with trucks trying to get through customs on their way to Dover, no matter what the politicians in London and Brussels decide.

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