There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory. (Sir Francis Drake, 1587)

As Mrs May’s intrepid BREXIT negotiating team set fair for Brussels, carrying with them the hopes and fears of our realm, are they mindful of the six stages of many major projects? These are often written as:

  • Enthusiasm,
  • Disillusionment,
  • Panic and hysteria,
  • Hunt for the guilty,
  • Punishment of the innocent,
  • and Reward for the uninvolved.

Undoubtedly within their midst must be a project manager (or even team) well experienced in delivering complex projects for difficult customers on short timescales, to wide-ranging specified requirements and within tight budgets. He (or she) will have his work cut out.

Brexit (especially the way the government has, for now, selected to follow) is a complex process requiring a multitude of different strands (including other associated and critical projects) to be pulled together. Worse, much is actually outside direct control involving activities ‘over there’ in the European Commission, European Parliament, and government departments or ministries within the 27 remaining Member States. And even these will probably take inputs from European Union (EU) agencies and external organisations (such as trade or commerce organisations) as well. Herding the contents of a sizeable African game park or engineering a trip to Mars would probably be simpler and more predictable than project managing this lot.  

Brexit then needs great project and process management. Unfortunately these are things we traditionally don’t do that well, relying instead on muddling through, centralised micromanagement by a ‘great leader’ and minds being concentrated at the last moment. And our governments usually talk down the difficulties (and costs) involved in any major project, until bitten really hard by the facts on the ground; such as the Millennium Dome, or NHS and HMRC Information Technology projects or the Nimrod AEW3 airborne early warning (surveillance) project.  To make matters worse we often go for ‘re-inventing the wheel’ (and finding that it doesn’t work at the first attempt anyway).

Rather than try to project manage BREXIT as it stands with all the complexity, unknowns and risks involved much can be done to make the task easier and, therefore, the end result more likely to meet or even exceed expectations.

For starters: be realistic about what can or cannot be achieved  (in the time or ever); take out as much complexity as possible;  get control of as much of the overall project (including the EU’s contribution) as possible; get adequate, experienced, competent resources rather than being surrounded by sycophantic Yes Men (or women) or Yes Minister (Sir Humphry Appleby) obstructionists; plan and programme before rushing in; monitor and predict the problem areas/activities well in advance and proactively solve; adapt and respond quickly when the unexpected occurs (as it will); identify and attenuate undesirable/unwanted consequences (collateral damage); avoid fudges or letting uncomplete or wrong work carry on (they bite hard later); use proven standardised methods, products and solutions, wherever practicable; communicate and listen to the messenger rather than shooting him  or her when the message is unpalatable; watch out for the subtle confidence tricks such as nonsensical excuses, playing politics and ‘moving the goalposts’; also watch for members of the team changing sides through regular proximity with the other (EU) side (assuming they are actually on our side to begin with); keep good, traceable, up to date records from the beginning.

This is pretty basic and obvious. There are plenty of rocket science standard techniques, textbooks and management tools around to help on project management.However if the basics are not right, the advanced stuff becomes expensively ineffective.

Brexit involves negotiation which is assumed to require compromises such as meeting half way or quid pro quo. This can obviously set precedents that again come back later to bite hard. From a project management perspective, firm commitments and precise statements of current status are more likely to lead to the desired outcomes (in our country’s interests) being achieved; sometimes also called driving a hard bargain or statecraft.  Perhaps Mrs May already has an experienced mentor for this important art (of the deal); Donald J Trump perhaps, who brings a long career of dealing with truculent contractors and insular officialdom, having been taught some basic skills, on the job, by his redoubtable father.  

All major projects eventually come to an end, usually in a far more imprecise and messy way than they started. And the project team disbands, its members moving onto other things.  Presumably the same will happen years hence for the Department for Exiting the EU or perhaps not?  There can’t be many instances when civil servants have intentionally worked themselves out of a job in two years! 

The final observation in this brief look at the project management of BREXIT comes from the motto in Sir Francis Drake’s heraldic achievement, Sic Parvis Magna, translated literally, as: “Thus great things from small things (come)” – sometimes true of achievements and a certainty for projects that have gone pear-shaped.