While I’ve been following the UK’s Brexit debate (or the US election for that matter) I can’t help but see huge similarities to a lot of complex organisational change initiatives. Regardless of which “side” of the UK’s Remain/Leave debate you may be on, the dynamics of this change are an intriguing representation of complex and emergent change on a grand scale.
Change is not predictable or linear
Most people on either side seemed to expect a clear definition of “if we do this, then the outcome will be that”. This suggests a belief that the UK/EU relationship would operate to a set of pre-defined “relationship rules”, in a somewhat mechanistic way. However organisations, and relationships within them, do not usually operate this way. While there are some pre-defined cause/effect rules (e.g. invoking Article 50 has triggered a 2-year period of departure negotiations), most of the negotiations to follow and the decisions to be made will involve multiple stakeholders. These individuals will be acting and reacting to each other in different ways (influenced by their own motivations, stakeholders etc., leading to an emergent agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union. As we cannot do any more than predict (i.e. guess) what responses we will get from individuals in this process, we cannot accurately predict any of the outcomes of the negotiations.
So for every action taken by a UK politician, there could always be an infinite range of responses from any one of their EU counterparts. For example an EU leader could respond anywhere from “we should make this as difficult as possible for the UK to deter others” to “I feel very sorry for the UK and we should offer them a great deal to keep them connected to the EU and the single market”.
If we look at an organisation as a set of complex relationships and recognise that we cannot accurately predict the response to any particular intervention, we quickly see that the mechanistic view of cause/effect does not serve us well. Leaders, in politics as well as in organisations, need to be able to adapt rapidly, respond to an unpredictable, complex set of possible responses from others, and have the engagement and communication skills and approaches to keep key stakeholders engaged in the decisions taken in such an unpredictable environment.
Looking back to the distant “pre-referendum” period, there were assurances on both sides of the debate that were presented as facts (“if we leave, we’ll have an extra £350 million per day for the NHS”, or “if we leave, the economy will be irreparably damaged and we’ll need an emergency budget”. In reality it seems that the most honest answers to the questions posed by the electorate were those phrased as “we don’t know but we believe/hope that….”, while many of the “promises” of what would happen have not occurred as predicted.
As the EU is as much a relationship-based structure as it is defined by a set of rules we would do well to remember that in relationships there can be no pre-defined cause & effect responses.
Clarity on what the change aims to achieve
So if this were an effective company organisational change, what would be different?
For one thing, there would likely be at least a high-level view or vision of the intended outcome and some alignment about a strategy to achieve it. At the time of the referendum there was a vague vision that was represented as “leave the EU” or “get control of our borders” or “build bi-lateral trade agreements”. This has firmed up into a form of “hard Brexit” which precludes membership of the European single market, but there is not yet a clear, agreed, single representation of what that actually will entail. It could be “restrict the free movement of EU citizens and exit the single market and all EU legislation” or “maintain access to the single market but keep the best of the legislation and work out a way to reduce free movement of labour” or any of multiple potential variations. So while it was not totally clear what the vote was offering, it is still not much clearer what the future intent is.
Aligned and engaging leadership is critical to success
For effective change to occur, there needs to be clear leadership (not management) of the change. This would typically build on a clear vision of, in this case, where the UK is heading, and engage stakeholders in enabling and enacting that vision, collectively finding ways to overcome challenges as they arise. At present there is neither public clarity and alignment on where the UK wants to go, nor aligned leadership in place to articulate that vision, to engage stakeholders in it and to strive for it to become a reality. Consequently we are unlikely to see clearly any future benefits from the decision to leave the EU for a significant time – until we have a clear, single picture of what we are trying to achieve and clear leadership to move the country towards that vision.
One might say, with hindsight, “If we’d had a clearer set of options described in the referendum it would have been much simpler”, but reality is more complex than that!