Brexit lessons: organisational change management needed

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Brexit lessons: Change Management

LONDON, 25 June 2016 — As you know, Able and How is a Change Management consultancy. This week, thanks to the Brexit referendum, the UK, Europe and the world are going through some potentially radical “change”. So we must have something interesting to say.

Ideally it would be something unifying, and maybe soothing. But that might be too big an ask.

So, here we are.

Whether you live in Tyneside or Texas or Taipei, you now live in a world where we are so interconnected that we need to pay attention to what each other is doing. The recent Brexit vote in the UK, our headquarter country, is causing concerns and consternation in many corners of the world. And we all need to learn from it. Perhaps quite quickly.

Indeed, there are many interesting change management lessons to learn from this situation. Organisations, in this rare case, are actually ahead of society in their ability to manage the change that Britain has failed at. In most good organisations people are consciously and actively brought along with any incremental and evolving changes to the business. In the case of Britain’s role in the EU and the changes to society that has brought, the people clearly have not been following along.


Change readiness 

People need to be prepared to face change. That means some essential understanding of what is going on, why it is happening, and what the desired outcome is.

In Europe and the UK, that understanding is missing. People are not ready for the course that their governments — in London and in Brussels — wanted to take them on.  They do not see what the EU is for or why it is necessary. They do not see how it can help them.

Hopefully everyone will now understand that “telling” people is not enough. Simply “broadcasting” your ambition does not mean it has been received or understood. People need to be engaged in the change process. A chance to elect for European Parliamentarians, or to vote IN or OUT without much real debate, is not enough involvement for people to take an active interest, or to value what the EU does. And the European Parliament’s inability to participate in the UK population’s learning process has not helped.

It’s hard to imagine an organisation that has been less able to get people ready for change than the EU. Clearly Britain has not been great at it either. But successive UK governments have had all the work to do.


Leadership alignment

In an organisation, leadership alignment ought to be easy — although it is rarely done well.

  • Step 1 – Get everyone in a room.
  • Step 2 – Ask them to agree the way forward. (Really agree. Not just fail to disagree.)
  • Step 3 – Have them build the plan and activities for the way forward together
  • Step 4 – Send them out to actively deliver that plan.

None of that has happened with respect to promoting the ‘European project’ in Europe or in the UK. The failure to build enough support for the EU may be easy to blame on the hubris of the Cameron government, but it also wasn’t helped by the willful absence and discord of other key participants. And that is where the Brexit vote and large organisations come back into parallel. A frequent lack of leadership alignment.

What we call ‘leadership’ is often just the demonstrated ability to ensure alignment. That’s what great statesmen and business people have in common. Unfortunately too many people today think leadership is the rejection of compromise, the refusal to seek alignment, and the desire to gather people and try to head off in a different direction.

That kind of leadership is often less about true leadership and more about ego, anger or ignorance.


Organisational culture

In countries, one might call organisational culture ‘nationalism’, or country culture. But cultures have commonalities. And organisational and country cultures are actually more easily identified and reinforced or appealed too than people think. What one thinks of as demagoguery is often just the ability and desire to appeal to some of the less charitable characteristics of a culture. Appealing to some cultural norms seems to have been an easier task for one side of the Brexit debate than it was for the other.

Organisational culture is reinforced or changed by the people in the organisation. In the UK today there are a number of different cultures. Some are most easily defined by geography, some by socio-economics, education or age. And those narrower cultures came into play on June 23rd in a big way, mostly because higher ideals were not appealed too.

Typically an organisation’s culture is driven by common systems or processes, the ability to deliver common objectives, and the desire to see the same results.  In countries it can be much the same.

In the UK, as in Europe (and arguably America and elsewhere), there has been an erosion of that common cause. Or sometimes it has been channeled into things that are common to smaller and smaller cultural groups.

Often in businesses when this happens then there are measures which can be taken to bring the business back into a single focus. In countries and on continents like the UK and Europe, many, many years of prosperity has made the necessity of common cause less important — both for people and for leaders.


But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many good things to be fought for.  There is a consistency and coherence to what people want out of their work and their lives in the UK and in Europe.

What has been lacking in many western countries is the tools, the desire and the skills to successfully manage change. (This is what we call ‘change management capability’.) Legislators and bureaucrats see their role as the initiation of change and management of administration, but they don’t seem to know anything about change management.

On the 23rd of June 2016 the UK voted for Brexit, and issued a request for more and better change management. Now we need to see who, if anyone, has the tools, skills and desire to make it work. In spite of the challenge having been created by half the UK population, the answers now need to come from those who can steer the country and the EU forward, and away from the uncertainty and disunity we are feeling today.



David Ferrabee is a Director at Able and How.  Many years ago he worked in politics and on two referenda in Canada, trying to secure a better and more inclusive future for that country.

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