Brexit – A Project Management Perspective

I have tended to shy away from Brexit in this blog and have concentrated on Marketing and Business Strategy.  However, with ten weeks until the UK leaves the EU, I think it is worth looking at the way government has handled Brexit over the last two years.  To do this, I am taking a project management approach.  As anyone who has read some of the articles I have written about Brexit, or indeed anyone who follows my twitter feed, you will understand that I am no fan of the policy.  I see Brexit as a self-inflicted wound on the UK economy.  Indeed, all economic projections on Brexit see it as doing significant harm to the UK economy.  It is estimated that a Brexit deal, as negotiated by Theresa May in the draft withdrawal agreement, will cause a 5% drag effect on the UK.  A no deal Brexit is calculated as causing a 9% drag.  Brexit is the UK economy hobbling itself.  HMS Britain is about to drop a heavy drag anchor which will slow growth and hinder international competitiveness; all for the nebulous concept of ‘sovereignty’.

I say nebulous because those who shouted loudest about parliamentary sovereignty are now the first to shout foul when that parliamentary sovereignty is exhibited.

But this blog entry isn’t about political views or whether there is support for Brexit.  It asks whether the project is being appropriately managed.

Dennis Lock defines the stages of a project in his book, Project Management, the standard text for all business students on that subject.  Perhaps by listing those stages and factors for success and failure given by Lock, we get an idea of how the Brexit project is proceeding and its likely outcome.

The stages of a project listed by Lock are:

  1.  Project Definition
  2. Preparation and Planning
  3. Project Design
  4. Purchasing
  5. Fulfilment
  6. Completion and handover

It is utterly clear that the Brexit project is badly defined.  The referendum question asked one question; whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or Leave the EU.  The result, narrow as it was, was that the UK should leave.  But that answer didn’t provide a single possible outcome.  There was a range of options available and those on the Leave side of the argument didn’t present a single solution.  Britain could leave in a ‘hard Brexit’ or no deal.  Britain could retain close ties with the EU, the EEA model as shown by Norway; or Britain could decide to have a limited relationship: The Swiss model.  It seems that no one in government can decide and cabinet ministers to this day still present different potential outcomes.

Nor was there space left for compromise in the negotiation process, as Mrs May’s ‘red lines’ severely limited the options available.  Clearly Brexit was a poorly defined project.

Lock then describes success and failure factors in project definition:

  1.  Project Scope needs to be clearly stated and understood
  2. Technical requirements are not vague
  3. Estimates of timescale, costs and benefits are not over-optimistic.
  4. Risk Assessments are not incomplete of flawed
  5. The intended project strategy is inappropriate.
  6. Insufficient regard is given to cash flows and the provision of funds required to complete the project
  7. The interests and concerns of stakeholders are not taken into account.
  8. Undue regard is given to the motivation and behaviour of the people who will execute the project
  9. Insufficient regard is given to how those affected by the project will adapt to change
  10. Approval of the project plan is given for political, personal or intuitive reasons without due consideration to the business plan.

Where to start with this list in respect of Brexit!

As stated above, the project scope was vaguely defined.

Technical requirements as a result were vague.  If a soft Brexit was chosen, the technical requirements were completely different to those of a no deal Brexit.

The two year timescale is wholly insufficient to achieve Brexit.  The officials who drafted the Article 50 clause admit this.  But given the short timescale of the article 50 process, it was wholly inappropriate for the government to trigger that clause with absolutely no contingency planning in place.  A better proposal would have to been to do the contingency planning, then trigger Article 50 for the negotiations.  At least with contingency plans in place, the government’s position would be informed and appropriate red lines set.

The government’s Brexit plans completely fail to stand up to any interrogation based on the above list.

With only weeks to go until the Brexit deadline, arguments are still ongoing about factors in the above list.  We should have moved on to the delivery aspects of the Brexit plan by now: project fulfilment.

Lock lists the success and failure factors at the project fulfilment stage:

  1.  Good definition of the project and a sound business case
  2. An appropriate choice of project strategy
  3. Strong support for the project amongst management, in particular those managers responsible for managing the plan
  4. Firm control of changes to the project
  5. Technical competence
  6. Strong quality culture
  7. Appropriate regard for health and safety of all those affected by the plan
  8. Good project communication
  9. Well-motivated staff
  10. Quick and fair resolution of conflict.

Again, where do you start with this list!

The Brexit project has been poorly defined and there is no sound business case for it.  We are actually in a position of a government with a solemn duty to do the best for the country and its people is actively engaged on a mission which does nothing but harm to those interests.

The choice of project strategy, particularly the choice to trigger Article 50 prematurely has been appalling.

Those put in charge of driving May’s Brexit plan have been hard Brexiteers wholly opposed to it.

Fulfilment has been technically incompetent.  We have had ferry contracts awarded to a company with no ships and a port lacking the necessary infrastructure for HGVs.  We have had a trial at an airport designed to hold 5000 HGVs where only 87 HGVs turned up.  It appears we have a government which cannot plan a traffic jam.

Project communication has been appalling.  No deal preparation papers were short, vague and lacking necessary detail.  Risk assessments were incompetently produced and their content was held as secret.  Even when MPs demanded access to them, there was no appetite to share their content.

Staff motivation is clearly absent.  DExEU has the highest staff turnover of any government department.  It is seen by many as the death knell of a civil service career.  Currently the department is advertising for staff who ‘don’t panic’ in the face of pressure.

It is clear that the government, in particular ministers, put in charge of fulfilling the Brexit project simply aren’t up to the task.

Lock explains that in project management there is a direct relationship between cost, time and performance.

It is estimated that Brexit is already costing the UK government around £600 million per week.

The performance and quality of project delivery has been appallingly poor.

Most critical is the time objective.  A project not started in time can hardly be expected to finish on time.  To paraphrase Napoleon, “There is one kind of robber whom the law does not strike at and who steals that which is precious; time”.

It is utterly clear that the Brexit project has been managed horrendously and that it has run out of time.  In such circumstances the best option is probably to abandon the project entirely.