Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Failure wasn't always inevitable

When a project – of whatever type – fails, there is usually a ‘post-mortem’ of some sort to establish why and learn the lessons for the future.  That’s the theory, anyway, but the continued failure of projects suggests that learning the lessons isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Part of the explanation for that is the casual assumption that a ‘project’ is simply a series of tasks which merely require proper management and planning in order to get from initiation to completion.  There are indeed some projects which broadly fit that description; the danger arises in believing that it’s true of all projects.
The moon landings is one which did.  Those involved knew what they had to do and set out to engineer their way to success.  They certainly hit problems and challenges, but these were, by and large, engineering problems – the sort of ‘problem’ to which there is always a ‘solution’, even if it takes time, energy, and money to find that solution.  And the moon landings have become an idiomatic point of reference for anything large and complex – “If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can ….” (fill in the gap with whatever takes your fancy).  It is an easy way to dismiss challenges, and portray something as (comparatively) easy, and it was behind what the new future ex-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was talking about when he compared Brexit to the Apollo project.
It’s an easy and lazy comparison to make, but it’s also fundamentally wrong-headed.  The fact that ‘problems’ in the world of engineering or mathematics have ‘solutions’ doesn’t mean that the same is true in other fields, and the assumption that it is lies behind the failure of many projects.  In the case of Brexit alone, there are many examples to be found, all of which form part of the reason why Brexit hasn’t been the simple and straightforward process which its proponents claimed it would be.
The Irish border question is one of the obvious ones.  Listening to Johnson and the other Brexiteers talking, once could be forgiven for believing that this is ‘just a question of engineering’; we simply need to find and apply the right technology to manage the border, and the problem is solved.  What this overlooks is the human aspects of the problem; a border isn’t just a physical construct, it’s also an emotional and political one.  Managing the border isn’t simply about physical flows to and fro, it’s about the attitudes engendered by the existence or non-existence of that border.  Those attitudes are, in reality, rather more significant than lorry transits, and in concentrating on trying to find fancy ways of managing those lorry transits the Brexiteers completely fail to understand, let alone address, that issue.
One of Johnson’s three priorities as outlined in his words yesterday was about ‘uniting the country’.  Whilst he’s right to identify Brexit as having been a divisive issue, his apparent assumption that bringing the process of leaving the EU to a conclusion by forcing through an approach which not only ignores the almost 50% of the population who voted against Brexit, but also the significant proportion who supported Brexit-but-only-with-a-deal will achieve that makes the same mistake; it assumes that ‘engineering’ a way through is enough.
At the outset, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it was not inevitable that the Brexit project would fail; adopting an approach which took account of the subtleties of emotions and perceptions and which recognised that both the objective and the process needed a lot more discussion and definition might well have succeeded.  What made failure inevitable was treating it as an ‘engineering’ issue which simply required the application of ‘solutions’ by people who aren’t even engineers in order to achieve an objective which was never defined.  Replacing one non-engineer by another with an even more cavalier approach (albeit in possession of a better joke book) doesn’t immediately strike me as being likely to change very much.

No comments: