Brexit – the ultimate project challenge or opportunity

By Sean O’Reilly

With some reluctance this article seeks to consider the impact of the Brexit process upon the Project Management profession, I say with some reluctance as it is challenging to evaluate the Brexit phenomenon in a dispassionate non-political standpoint however it is important to leave politics and emotions aside and deal with Brexit as a consideration for any Project Manager charged with delivering a project.

In July 2019 Peter Glynne and Ariadna Groberio, Co-chairs of the PMI Brexit Cross Border Working Group, reported on the results of a cross border survey to ascertain Project Managers considerations of Brexit both on Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The survey results were the output of an all-island working group including both the Ireland Chapter of Project Management Institute (PMI) and the PMI Northern Ireland Committee.

The findings were illuminating. Key points were as follows:

  • The uncertainty of Brexit is a concern for more than 60% of project managers in Northern Ireland compared to 39% in the Republic
  • The majority said Brexit will have a negative impact on their organisation — 87% in the Republic and 79% in Northern Ireland.
  • 50% of project managers in Northern Ireland stated their economy is not prepared for the impact of Brexit, 25% in the Republic.

Many key sectors were cited by respondents to the survey and featuring most prominently were the following:

Northern Ireland:
Transport (39%)
government (26%)
Agri-foods (21%)

Agri-foods (63%)
Transport (26%)
Government (11%)

Quoting Co-chair of PMI Brexit Cross Border Working Group, Peter Glynne, he said: “Brexit is all about large scale change and our research highlights the impact of current uncertainty on organisations across the island of Ireland……..In the Republic of Ireland, our research indicates that 39% of project managers are concerned about the uncertainty whilst in Northern Ireland the figure is higher at 61%. This highlights the importance of agile leadership, not only to successfully plan and manage Brexit related change, but also readiness to respond to a rapidly changing political and economic landscape.”

At the time of writing this article the Brexit landscape is still fluid in terms of direction of travel and destination hence companies and organisations within both the public and private sectors are challenged with a very complex array of considerations and decisions to continue delivering projects within their realms of expertise. This is no easy task given the different Brexit scenarios that could arise hence proactive project planning becomes essential to circumnavigate these many and varied end games. The challenge is huge and impacts sectors of the economy in many different ways and to varying degrees. The Brexit uncertainty will challenge project sponsors regarding why, how much, where and when to release monies to support projects i.e. the underlying Business Case for any project becomes increasingly difficult to rationale and support. What reduces the threat of a poor return on investment, no return or worse case a negative financial outcome as a result of the project?
The Brexit project is an exercise in change control, getting ahead of it, understanding it, communicating it and ensuring responses to it are managed and appropriate to the challenges posed for the particular sector within which the organisation operates. Change is natural and a part of life however how organisations and project management professionals respond is what determines their level of success adapting to same. There is no one size fits all response and all organisations must approach it from their own unique perspective.
Within the project management profession it is now widely acknowledged that people management skills in addition to technical ‘hard’ skills are required to become an accomplished project manager. These soft skills are critical to ensure project benefits are materialised.
Sectors of the economy that are dealing with the fallout from Brexit require hard and soft skilled leaders within their project management framework that can lead and deliver projects to take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit may present and also deal with the challenges Brexit may pose.

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