Brexit lessons in change management

Barry Clarke | 30th June 2016

Irrespective of which side we took in the referendum, it has provided valuable lessons in anticipating, planning and managing change which, after all, is our business at Change Agency.

Remarkably, the political and economic lessons from this exercise in democracy resonate with the evidence we have gathered in helping companies and non-profit organisations to manage change effectively. In particular:

  • Address clearly the issue of ‘what’s in it for me’
  • Don’t take your stakeholders for granted
  • Set clear and measurable goals so that you know what success will look like
  • Be clear about the costs
  • Consistent and frequent messaging is effective
  • Tell the truth

The Remain side failed to make a clear value proposition to a significant part of the electorate. In focusing on the likely negative consequences of leaving the EU, it failed to explain to millions of disaffected citizens how the EU benefited them.

Every successful change management project requires the investment of time and empathy to understand the hopes and concerns of those who will be most affected. Remain clearly failed to do this – particularly the Labour Remainers who had not heard or acted upon the anger and frustration of their members. The election of Jeremy Corbyn ought to have been a clue about the disaffection with politics as usual among those who have experienced nothing of the economic recovery since 2008.

There wasn’t any suggestion of a strategic plan on either side. Remain had no Plan B and Leave didn’t even have a Plan A. The absence of any sort of plan was evident in the subdued winner’s speech in which Boris seemed surprised to have won and uncertain about what to do next. We suspect that he was even more disconcerted when stabbed in the back by his very own Brutus. Change needs more than a negative purpose but neither side was able to articulate what success looks like.

All change comes with cost implications. It would have been helpful for the voters to have had some idea of the impact of leaving on the cost of imports, the value of sterling and the billions needed to shore up our currency.

There’s also an important lesson in the messaging. Our experience as communicators compels us to admire the Leave campaign’s ability to communicate a simple idea and do so with frenetic frequency without fear of excessive repetition. In the last of the Dimbleby Debates, the Leavers adeptly repeated their slogan ‘Take back control’ at least once every three minutes to ensure that their message reached viewers with a limited attention span.

Truth was, as always, an early victim of this war yet all successful change depends on it. We urge clients to give clear and reasoned expectations of what change will achieve. We would have liked both sides to be more honest with the data and to clearly differentiate evidence from speculation. Change management fails when expectations are not met.

The referendum majority expects massive investment in the NHS, a continuation of all regional development funds, higher earnings and selective immigration. We suggest the early and comprehensive design of Plan A with extensive mitigation provisions in the event that taking back control requires more than just a slogan.


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