50 Shades of Brexit

Today, the UK government, acting on the advice of its people in England and Wales, but against the wishes of those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, has sent notice that it will leave the European Union in 2 year’s time. It has triggered the now famous Article 50. Just as in real life divorce, none of the parties involved has any idea what the eventual cost will be and whether life will ever be better again. In future years, we will try to reassure ourselves that it could have been much worse but if we are honest we will have to admit it was painful. It may be that our country will not exist as a United Kingdom at the end of all this. As a nation and as a continent, we are in the trough of the change curve surrounded by uncertainty and reasons to be fearful. Unforeseen consequences lurk around every corner.

Is the uncertainty so essential to the experience? Why is the Government’s Change Management Team (prosaically known as the Department for Exiting the EU) not able to offer a realistic, straightforward and non-partisan description of the essential factors which will frame the divorce? It might also focus on outlining those many things that will stay the same. Hang on though; the need to admit that EU immigration will continue at much the same level as today makes that a bit tricky. But it surely will. The British economy is close to full capacity and we will need the young, hard working eastern European workforce to maintain its momentum and, by the way, pay for my future healthcare. I can already hear the howls of outrage from those that voted for Brexit mainly because they were fed up with multi-consonent, slavic tones in the doctor’s waiting room.

There is much discussion of the cheque that the UK will have to write to secure its freedom. Estimates range from zero to 60billion Euro. The idea that we can leave for free must be fanciful. The EU, like most national economies, is in debt in its own right; some estimates suggest to the tune of 300billion Euro. It is obvious that since the UK has contributed to the debt, then we will have to pay back our share, net of assets. More likely, we will refinance the amount and add it to our own sovereign debt. In the grand scheme of things, the amount involved is not large when compared with UK national debt which is measured in trillions. However, whatever the amount, it will certainly become the source of populist outrage and just maybe voter remorse of which there is currently no sign.

Another dark shade of uncertainty is that surrounding our future trade relationship with the EU. In trying to simplify this, pessimists paint a picture of day 1 of a hard Brexit in 2019 in which the ports of Calais and Dover are choked by hundreds of trucks waiting for customs clearance under World Trade Organisation rules. Has no one heard of the digital solutions which are already in every day use to handle such transactions?

The next 2 years and longer will be a rough ride for the UK and Europe. We could make it just a little less traumatic by replacing some of the politics with some honest communication underpinning well structured change management.

Brexit Plus Plus

My regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the invented word coined for the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. If you are based in the UK it is impossible to go more than an hour or two without hearing the ghastly word. A new, ugly vocabulary has sprung up to describe the type of relationship we might have with the EU in future and to disparage particularly those, like me, that would like to keep all our options open until we know more about what we are doing to ourselves. Our expensively educated leaders are adept at word invention. Just yesterday we had the British Chief Diplomat’s “Whingerama” which I take to mean “a collective expression of concern about the election of an unknown quantity to the most powerful position in the world”.

For me, it was another unwelcome development when the President elect of the United States started to compare his campaign to the apparent success of the forgotten people of England in putting the finger up to their governing class. Of course, being American (are we sure?), P(e)oTUS is compelled to add a double plus rating to his election win. It is rumoured that our very own Nigel Farage (Brexiteer-in-Chief) is advising the Donald.

The rallying cries of recent political campaigns have trumpeted change even, perversely, when the vision is conservative and reactionary.

Over the summer and more so now, I have been trying to find evidence for structured change management planning for the UK, in the EU, and now the US; not the mechanical transition of power but the kind of plan that would allow us ordinary folk to begin to understand what the future might look like. We are all stakeholders.

The British government has repeatedly said it will not run a commentary on its vision for the future; spuriously suggesting that this would undermine its negotiating position. All we need to know is that “Brexit means Brexit”. Thanks for the clarification.

The policy positions of the incoming US administration are now the subject of media speculation based on the idea that what was said during the campaign was for effect only and that we can expect something much more moderate and thoughtful. Really?

Behind the scenes in Washington, Brussels and London, I am hoping that there are teams of left-brain thinkers that are above political point scoring and focused on developing a coherent, realistic plan that everyone can at least understand even if they would not vote for it.

What you each need, Donald, Jean-Claude and Theresa, is a Secretary of State, Commissioner, Minister for Change. I am available.

Yorkshire Grit

A highlight of my week was a visit to York; my first as it happens. Learning more about the history of the city on one of those ubiquitous, red, hop-on hop-off buses, I was struck by the waves of change that York has experienced over the last millennium. In the context of the recent Brexit decision, the changes are in a different league. York has been home to Vikings, Romans, Saxons and Normans. The city has been a military stronghold, agricultural trading hub, centre of chocolate production and railways. Today it remains a seat of learning (something always stays the same), has a thriving service sector and, judging by the plethora of restaurants, appears rather affluent and content with itself.

Yorkshire Grit, the strength of character and tenacity, for which the people of the county are known, is then, perhaps, a result of successful change management over the  centuries.

The Change Manager should understand the history of the organisation he/she is working with. Here there will be clues as to the appetite for, acceptance of and adaptability to change. There may be cultural triggers and lessons learned that can be integrated into the Change Plan.

Back to York; perhaps my angry reaction to Brexit featured earlier and already tempered after a mere 6 weeks, will be made to seem rather extravagant; the changes it brings meriting just a footnote in the history of the city.

Change is good in the long run.

Moments of Truth

The reactions of the British public, the markets and the European Union Leadership to Brexit are typical of those moments of truth that Change Managers must anticipate and plan to mitigate. Little such planning has been evident in this particular case study (if only it was just a case study).

The British public, of which I am part, is stunned whichever way it voted. It seems that the consequences of the decision were not fully appreciated by many. The markets have over-reacted as they mostly do. The leadership of the European Union is angry, suddenly threatened and prone to hardline statements.

Moment of truth reactions must be heavily discounted and allowed to play out. The dawning realisation that more is the same than changing will lead to calmer and more constructive reactions. At this point, the Change Manager must be ready with appropriate and timely interventions.

For the thoughts that follow, I am inspired by the speech of a good friend on his retirement from the European Commission this week. Some might say he is one of those faceless bureaucrats from which we Brits must be liberated. He argues that a clear and compelling vision is required to drive and sustain change. The calls for “healing” repeated in the UK over the last few days are meaningless. We need the vision and a plan to make Brexit work. Healing will follow as an outcome of competent Change Management. Without vision, the wounds will fester.

Moments of truth are inevitable in any change programme; like rogue waves that can only be ridden out. Visioning the future beyond the horizon is critical to success.

I still believe that change is good.




The ugly, synthesised word that has, today, come to signify the British peoples’ decision to leave the European Union is now assured of a long life. I am on the losing side and shocked. My readers will not be surprised to learn that I am looking for Change Management lessons even while I think about whether there is anything I can do to protect my selfish interests (I do not think there is).

The received wisdom for binary decisions such as offered to the UK voters is that the status quo will have an inherent advantage. Human nature tends to be risk averse. The case for change has to be rather robust to overcome that instinct. The knowledge that a change will likely involve the roller coaster that is our Change Curve and include a period in the wilderness weighs heavily.

So what happened here in the UK? I should mention at this point that it was mostly the English rather than the British that have forced this pending Brexit.

The Brexit arguments, even when I did not agree with them, were positive and sometimes appealed to another basic instinct; jingoism. The arguments for staying in the EU were often framed as if threatening a naughty child with a loss of privileges.

In this case it seems the good folk of England (ok, and Wales) decided to test the boundaries. As is occasionally observed at international soccer tournaments, we English do have a naughty streak.

So now the challenge is to sell the advantages of Brexit to me and the 16 million Brits who voted and lost. Right now I am frightened, angry and not at all hopeful. The wilderness looms on the near horizon.

But heh, change is good. Right?