Faculty & Research
The School


Making sense of complexity
The Prime Minister's insistence on a 'hard' Brexit may have been a way to manage complexity; but moving towards a deal will require more people to develop a wider and more subtle outlook.

Michael Smets

What I found so baffling about the Referendum last June was the implicit expectation that the general public should have ‘ripple intelligence’ beyond measure – that they should understand all of the cogs and the wheels within wheels of all the agreements within the EU, and the direction in which the dominoes would fall when decisions were made.  

No one – including the general public and politicians in the UK and across the world – comprehended all that nine months ago, and we still don’t, because Brexit has not yet happened. The Prime Minister has only just triggered Article 50, so we have two years until the UK officially leaves the EU. What might happen during that time and how may it affect the negotiations?

The two-year timescale for negotiations may sound too short, but it is probably a good thing. If discussions stretched over five years, everything around us would be changing so fast that the negotiations would not be able to keep pace.

Some things, like the election of Donald Trump as US President, were unknowable at the time the EU vote took place. What else that is unknowable and unpredictable now will become reality by 2019? What will happen in the French elections, in Germany, and Greece? What will be the impact and unintended consequences of technological change? How can the negotiators and political and business leaders make sense of the fast-changing environment while pushing through so many changes themselves?

In this context, Theresa May’s adoption of a very executive negotiation process and very executive decision-making about what Brexit actually looks like makes a kind of sense. At first glance, from a leadership perspective, it seemed almost breathtakingly audacious. But it is perhaps the only way of managing the complexity of the situation: explaining every stage of such a massive, complicated, nuanced negotiation would result in paralysis.

But moving towards a deal, as well as responding to other world developments, will require more and more people to develop a wider and more subtle outlook. Here the S3 model for understanding change, which we developed as part of our 2014 study of more than 150 CEOs, can help. In the model, speed is mapped against two other dimensions of change: scope and significance. Brexit as a whole is clearly revolutionary, foundational in scope and strategically significant. Other decisions that contribute to the Brexit process may be more contained and technical. Assessing where each decision ‘sits’ in the model can help with prioritisation and determining where and how key people should spend their time.


Michael Smets

Michael Smets View profile

Dr Michael Smets is Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies and a Research Fellow at Green Templeton College. He is also a member of the Centre for Professional Service Firms, based at Saïd Business School.
'Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership and the Power of Doubt' read The CEO report by Saïd Business School & Heidrick & Struggles