Brexit as an organisational change

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Brexit and OCM

Support is slipping, the strategy is unclear, and the country appears not to be very well prepared for the change. What lessons can the UK’s Brexit teams take from organisational change management?


The visionless officialized fatuity
That once kept Europe safe for Perpetuity
Seigfried Sassoon
A Soldier’s Declaration
(July 1917)

LONDON, AUGUST 2017 – Things have not always gone according to plan in Britain’s efforts to leave the European Union.

At the time of writing it has been 14 months since the country voted to leave the EU in a surprise referendum that delivered a surprise result. Taking the result and renewing itself around the unexpected answer, the government of the UK, as lead by a slim majority in the Conservative Party, has upheld the ambition with unflinching resolve. Even last May’s snap election, which caused the Tories to lose that majority, hasn’t affected that resolve.

However, it has not all been smooth sailing and, while international attention has been diverted elsewhere, the UK and the EU have not covered themselves in glory either. Both in Europe and in the wider world, the UK’s unclear and unpredictable approach to Brexit has concerned observers.

This may all be driven by the country’s leaders’ inability to manage change.

Yes, Organisational Change Management (or OCM) may have lessons for the management of major public policy issues too. Including Brexit.  Importantly OCM is not some new and obscure business practice either.  John Kotter’s eight steps are more than 20 years old[1]. And yet the government, politicians and the civil service, may not be making use of some basic principles of OCM to deliver Brexit.

As experts in OCM, with clients like General Electric, Anglo American, American Express and Shell, Able and How sees the essential tenets of organisational change management offering clues to what the UK could do better.


Getting started right is really important when delivering change. If you don’t get it right you can burn value – lose money – by distracting and confusing people whose energies should be applied elsewhere.

It’s never too late to do this. Many organisations realise their mistake and initiate programmes of change long after the change has begun.

ANSWER 1: Paint a very clear picture of the future

In OCM we call this the Case for Change.  In modern political terms we could just say to explain ‘Why?’

Even though we are 14 months in, some would say the case for change for Brexit remains unclear. A frequent answer is: Immigration.  However Britain’s history as an open and tolerant society doesn’t back this up. The so-called Evil May Day of 1517 is almost exactly 500 years behind us and led to King Henry VIII bringing 5,000 troops into central London to quell the concerns about the ‘strangers’ streaming into the country.[2]

Immigration is not a new issue. Nor is it a uniquely British issue. It has not been clearly or compellingly argued how Brexit is the answer.

Whatever the reasons for Brexit, the unassailable arguments need to be made.

That clear picture will drive adoption and rally support behind the change. That is the first step in successful organisational change.

ANSWER 2: Plan, then announce

Aligned to the clear picture is timing the arguments appropriately to driving change. Organisations are urged to have a clear plan and know what their change strategy is before they announce the change.

In electoral terms you could argue that that luxury is not available anymore. In referenda two sides present a vision and then people vote. However, few could argue that the vision of the future outside of the EU lacked some depth.

What are the business benefits, OCM practitioners would ask. For public policy, like Brexit, Britons should ask what are the social benefits too. What are the benefits for taxpayers, for school children, for our healthcare system, etc.?

There should be a plan for all this. And the plan needs to have a level of transparency. This is different from giving away a negotiating position. Like in a business merger situation, people are not really interested in “the deal”, what they want to know is: “What will it mean for me?”

ANSWER 3: Ensure you understand ‘change readiness’

A key measure of the success of the endeavour will be based on the acceptance of people. In OCM parlance we talk about people adopting the change, not just adapting to it. And as we initiate the change we look at ‘change readiness.’

How prepared are the British people for the changes that are coming?

Recent surveys suggest they are not particularly.

The time that has elapsed since the vote was held in June 2016 has seen support and understanding of the Brexit challenges leak away. People’s views have changed. There’s no denying that.

Referenda can be like that. And what some have insisted on calling “the biggest democratic exercise in the history of Britain”[3] really was not. The data doesn’t back that up. [See Box 2] and the vote undeniably leaves almost half of Britain unhappy about the outcome.

The many paths to Brexit now are still unclear. The government should put more effort into managing the readiness of people in Britain for what is coming. The change needs to be ‘initiated’ again.


The government’s work to take the United Kingdom out of the EU is not happening in isolation. There are regional concerns – in Scotland and Northern Ireland, not least. (Could Brexit unintentionally cause the reunification of Ireland?)

Brexit is not a hypothetical, or something being done elsewhere, that has no effect on people in the UK. It is happening now and to all those who live in the UK.

ANSWER 1: Take people with you

All change is delivered through people. If people don’t do the things that change is adjusting then it doesn’t happen. The same is true of Brexit. If people in this country cannot and do not support it then it cannot succeed: the government will fall, trade will taper off, people will move away, etc.

It order to prepare people for the change there is a process called an ‘Impact Assessment’ to go through. That looks at each audience – based on their importance and through different lenses – and assesses how they might expect to be impacted by the change.  Newspapers now do this regularly during elections and for government budgets. And the Brexit planners may already be thinking this way, but from the outside that information is far from clear.

Another common approach is to have ‘Change Agents’. These are key people who can advocate for the change. And currently Britain is well short of those people in public life. The arguments for departing the EU are not clear (as discussed above) and not clearly or regularly explained.

The current state of debate in the UK has the daily press largely promoting the need to press on, but without a reasoned, or clear debate. This is how The Economist describes it: “…a neurotic pro-Brexit press shrieks that anyone who voices doubts about the country’s direction is an unpatriotic traitor.”[4]

Change agents typically make a compelling case and model the desired behaviour.

ANSWER 2: Adjust as you go

A key feature of change, not surprisingly, is that things change as you go along. The ability to manage those vagaries is what organisational change management is all about.

Successful change can maintain the momentum, and ensure key audiences are kept on-board, while navigating new factors and adjustments to the original plan.  Too often big programmes will run for years and then say “ta-dah!” and deliver something that may or may not be fit for purpose at all.

It is perhaps fair to argue at this point that there is something ‘emotional’ about the Brexit process, and some of the positions that Britain has and will have to take are based on the strong emotional need to assert independence. And that defies argument and rational explanation.

Although this argument may be recognisable to some people it would need more investigating and better language than is currently being shared. “The people have spoken” doesn’t explain policy decisions or an inability to deliver on a plan that some people have been discussing for decades.

The UK Administration needs to get better at delivering the rational for change, even as changes happen to the Brexit terms, process and approach.

ANSWER 3: Prepare process owners for hand-over

If you are looking to make a sustainable change then you need to be thinking early about how to hand new processes back to their original, or new, ‘process owners’.

Imagine you are getting rid of your Performance Management process in your business, as General Electrics, Deloitte, Accenture, Cigna, Adobe and Gap have all done.[5] There will be teams of people in HR that usually oversee the Performance Management process. Your Communications team runs campaigns inside the business to drive people into it. People managers are used to the regular cycle and how they are going to go about it.  What happens to those people and their routines?  What is the new process? Is it an app? Is it a more frequent but less regular habit that needs forming?  Who will have to manage a new process?  HR, Communications and People managers, at least. How are they being prepared to own and run the new process? You obviously have to do more than just announce it, right?

Brexit will have many, many more processes than GE’s Performance Management system. It will affect more people.

ANSWER 4: Minimal disruption associated with ‘go live’

Adoption of new technology is a good way to think about this. How easy is it to go from a rotary dial phone to a smart phone? For those who have missed the evolutionary process, moving them from an old-style land line to an iPhone is a real task. They don’t look alike, they don’t adhere to the same principles of physics, or user interface, or offer the same services – smart phones aren’t even primarily used for telephone calls.[6]

If you are going to move from one state of affairs to a new one – going from the “as-is” to the “to-be” – you need to make the transition as easy as possible.

The questions and answers we have discussed earlier in this article point to some of the ways that ‘go live’ can be a real challenge and to ways that it can happen faster.

Delivering effective change is a complex but fundamentally manageable process. An important part of the success of an organisational change programme is the work that needs to go into preparing people to make the change. Most people can think of an instance when they failed to drive successful change, maybe it was a move to a new school, a new haircut or a business idea that never got off the ground.

As simple as it might seem, people do manage successful change in their lives on a personal scale. However many of the things we do to do that become harder as they are taken to an industrial scale – to larger groups.  That doesn’t necessarily make success impossible, it just means that greater planning and clearer processes are required to drive that change.

In the case of Brexit it seems like many of those things are not happening.

Some of that may also come down to questions of ‘change capability’.

Let’s look at that…


Article image brexit small

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[4] you are looking to make a sustainable change then you need to be thinking early

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