Nick's Notes

Keep Calm and Carry On

The title of this blog originates from the popular, but now perhaps somewhat tired slogan, which originated in the war but surprisingly wasn’t used in that era. It has enjoyed sing in vogue relatively recently appearing on mugs, cards and even cushions. It is frequently followed by the phrase “it’s only [fill in event of choice]”. I might suggest we insert Brexit for the purposes of this blog.

I have said on several occasions that this is not an overtly political blog and never party political. However, there are so many lessons that can be drawn from what is going on at Westminster at present that it would be strange to ignore it.

First, although Theresa May doesn’t at first glance demonstrate all the qualities looked for in a charismatic leader, I can only admire her dogged determination to “get the job done” despite opposition from all quarters, including her own party. This reminds me of Yes Prime Minister, when Jim Hacker is told that the Opposition are in front of you, your enemies are behind you. Mrs May seems to be suffering from that. Leaders, project leaders in particular, do need the determination she is showing, although I can’t help feeling that if a project leader was so beleaguered a kindly CIO or CEO would take the individual quietly aside and fire them. Certainly, without clarity of objective, and whatever else it is “Brexit” is not a final objective, because what comes next is crucial when leaving anything, a project should at least be paused if not killed off.

Dogged determination isn’t always the best course for a leader. A wider inclusion of the different opinions and approaches may break down some of the seemingly unanswerable questions and generate new approaches when handled carefully, and when not allowed to just go around in circles. The Irish border question and Backstop arrangements for Brexit have arisen partly because of the success of the Good Friday Agreement, which moved forward what had seemed to be unsurmountable problems that had beset Northern Ireland for a quarter of a century during the “Troubles”. That took interminable negotiations as many books by the protagonists have attested.

One thing that is sorely missing, and any change project really needs it, is vision. A great leader projects forward a vision of why the change is worthwhile, why the effort will pay rewards and how the future will be better than the past as a result, in short what’s in it for me. Tony Blair was one such leader who, despite the flimsiness of his evidence, could paint that picture. Mrs May does not have that ability. She is much more managerial in approach. You need both styles to be truly successful, but when the vision is lacking the reason to pursue a course of action is much more open to question. This is a structural problem with Brexit. Leave won the referendum, but unlike in a General Election the victors did not then have the opportunity to implement their ideas. Instead, the Establishment, essentially Remainers, have been tasked with implementing the People’s will, which is not their desired approach. And we end up where we are as a result. No business could ever get into this state for long. If shareholders truly held a majority for a course of action, then the Chief Executive and Chairman would be removed in a Special General Meeting if they were taking the business in a direction so opposed by its owners.

The equivalent at Westminster would be to call a General Election. But the Fixed Term Parliament Act has changed the rules on that as a result of David Cameron trying to demonstrate longevity of his coalition with the Liberal Democrats. And anyway, unlike my theoretical band of aligned shareholders the electorate are far from agreed on Brexit, never mind the vision for the future following separation from the EU. And suffice to say the fear in Conservative Party circles of letting the most left-wing Opposition for 30 or more years into power pushes them into ever more bizarre acts.

There appears to be no majority for any course of action in the House of Commons. Changing the Prime Minister doesn’t affect any of the fundamentals of parliamentary arithmetic, the EU leaders’ views nor the various interpretation of what the people wanted when voting Leave. But it might affect the espoused vision, it might affect the tone – a more inclusive style of let’s work together on this might emerge.

Time appears not to be on Brexit’s side. The law as it stands states that the UK will leave the EU at 11pm (GMT) on 29th March 2019 – 2 years since Article 50 was invoked. In any good project management handbook the importance of time cannot be understated. A burning platform is often quoted as the greatest motivator any business can face, as moving rapidly away from something that isn’t working can be highly motivational. Likewise, creating a phase 2 to deal with some of the intractable problems caused by a change programme is a sensible tactic in some projects to get to a new level of acceptance before dealing with the hard issues. I’ve blogged previously about “yes”, “no” and “not at the moment” being a sensible set of replies from leaders.

So, looking dispassionately at Westminster, on the day the Conservative Party have triggered a vote of no confidence in their leader, the Prime Minister, can provide writ large a view of many red flags for projects and change management in general. I think if you see any of your projects so overwhelmingly caught up in internal politics you will be exceptionally unlucky, but we’ve all seen similar things happen, at a lower level.

And as for Brexit, what I really think needs to happen now is [sorry you’ve run out of space – editor].

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