doomed to fail?

August 26, 2019

Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez is a thought leader, author of The Project Revolution and The Focused Organization. He teaches senior leaders at leading business schools worldwide.

Driving a project towards its defined goals entails, a convincing purpose, clarity of scope and a definitive deadline. Without these, large transformation projects like Brexit stand a high chance of failure.

In my research I looked at large projects and small ones, projects in business and in politics, strategic projects and operational projects, one-off projects and portfolios of projects. One thing came across very clearly: all the projects that did not deliver their expected outcomes were missing answers to at least three of six key questions, which lie at the heart of good project management practises. These questions make up what I call the Project Canvas.


Brexit misses at least five, so the chances of failure are—and always were—enormous. Here are the five questions which Brexit has so far failed to answer:

Compelling rationale—why?

There are two main reasons why we invest resources (time and effort) in a project: either to solve a problem, or to capture an opportunity. The main motivation for the people who voted to leave the EU was emotional. They were rebelling against the bureaucrats in Brussels, the refugees, the huge amount of money that they thought the UK would save and so on. The rationale is far less compelling when they realize that most of the benefits they voted for were an illusion.

In the years since the Brexit vote, no compelling rationale has been developed by the British government.

That is why they have continued to emphasize what they regard as their democratic duty to follow the referendum result. They do not even pretend that Brexit is economically beneficial for the UK.

Strong charismatic sponsor—who?

Probably the single most important characteristic of a successful transformation project is having a strong, engaged, and charismatic sponsor. In the US, for example, President Obama was able to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010 despite trenchant opposition from the Republican party.

Having won the referendum, the outside observer might have assumed that its champions would have provided the leadership to take the UK out of the EU. That has not been the case. People such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have preferred to be critical rather than leading. This left a power vacuum, which Theresa May has sought to fill. Lack of experience of leading large transformation projects and a lack of charisma have rendered the leadership ill-equipped to provide the required impetus. And the fact that May actually voted to ‘remain’ has provided her a bad start from which she has rarely looked like recovering. It is difficult to be the flag-bearer for a cause you do not fundamentally believe in.

There are two main reasons why we invest resources (time and effort) in a project: either to solve a problem, or to capture an opportunity.

Clarity of scope—what?

The scope defines what the project will look like when delivered. The more we know about this at the beginning of the project, the better we can estimate the duration, cost and skills needed to produce the desired outcome. The opposite also applies: the more uncertainty there is about the scope, the more difficult it is to have an accurate plan.

The Brexit project is unique. It has never been done before. Therefore, no one really knows what it entails. Not even the most outspoken Brexiter had a clue about the complexity of the separation. Defining the scope of the Brexit is a painful task that will take months and maybe years. Even now, the full scope of the project is barely understood. It was perhaps a mistake to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU before having any real sense of what that entailed.

Buy-in from key stakeholders—whom?

The most successful projects occur when all, or at least most, of the key stakeholders (ie, people impacted by the project who have influence) are in favor of the change. Even better is when they support the project. During the London Olympics, for example, virtually the entire country was behind the project, throughout. There was huge support during the bidding, during the construction, and during the celebration of the games.

In project management there is a maxim: there is always one stakeholder who will be happy if your project fails. Well, with Brexit, 48 percent voted against the change so there was little buy-in from the start. The Government’s failure to reach out to the ‘remain’ voters to convince them of their strategy has simply hardened opposition.

Projects that start with a clear and undisputed deadline have a higher chance of success. Starting without a finish-line can make a project drag on for months and even years.

Precise finish-line—when?

Projects that start with a clear and undisputed deadline have a higher chance of success. Starting without a finish-line can make a project drag on for months and even years. There are lots of examples of projects that set ambitious deadlines to achieve unthinkable results. One of the best is during the Cold War years, when John F Kennedy set the bold goal of “putting the first man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s”. Those words drove an entire nation to accomplish a project that would have never been possible without that insane finish-line.

Deadlines in project management are used to focus the team, increase their attention towards the end goal, and of course, to put pressure on them to perform at their best.

Deadlines stick in peoples’ mind. Every British citizen knew the date of the referendum, the 23rd of June, 2016. Yet, nobody seems to have a clue when the Brexit project will finish. The longer a project takes, the higher the chances of failure.

In project management terms, an activity, which has neither a beginning nor an end, cannot be considered a project. Nearly three years on from the vote to leave the EU, the process of leaving is barely at the end of the beginning. n