Lynette Nusbacher: Brexit as a path to strategy
Early in the Brexit moment, late in 2015, I would talk with my anti-European Union friends about the difficulties inherent in amputating the United Kingdom from the EU. I would talk about tariffs and trade and standards and the comparative sizes of different economies. I'd talk about the decade it took to design and implement the association agreements between the EU and Israel and the EU and Palestine; and the continuous development since. The response I got was "we don't know what would happen."
A few months later, I started figuring out what would happen if the UK divorced itself from the EU.
I didn't try to predict the future, but I used structured strategy methods to understand the future.
The brain power for this came from my clients. Some of the best value I had came from the partners at Pinsent Masons, a law firm in the City of London known for its innovative knowledge management and its emphasis on diversity.
One clever person thinking hard about the future can come up with some interesting ideas, but harnessing the brains of a diverse group of very bright people, each with in-depth understanding of the sectors in which their clients work; this represents a rich vein of wisdom that can be exploited. The wisdom can be drawn out of those heads using structured methods, in the process giving the participants insights into possible futures.
These participants are not only sensitised to potential futures, but also inoculated against strategic shock. The process of structured futures thinking forces participants to abandon their cozy picture of a happy future (or their dark picture of a miserable future) and think realistically about a range of plausible futures. When change comes, they may be surprised, but they are far less likely to be shocked.
In a series of workshops over the course of the next three years, we continuously updated a scenario space that looked at the outcomes of different sorts of Brexit. The methodologies we used were simple, robust concepts that I learned during my time working on the National Security Strategy in Whitehall.
The insights we got were initially useful for guiding commercial strategy. Bringing a plausible discontinuous event like Brexit into strategy-making forces strategists to be sharper: they have to look past their biases, their optimism, their pessimism, to think clearly about the business reality they will cope with in the future.
When the referendum was done, and the UK had voted by a narrow margin to make some kind of departure from the EU, this preparation suddenly became something new: a set of marker buoys in the stormy, uncertain seas of those first few months. Over the subsequent three years, clients who participated in these futures processes were able to turn their own wisdom and understanding into commercial intelligence about near-future events that they could turn into operational action.
Two things are missing in this process: simulation and interaction.
It has been possible to examine the factors which drive all sides of the process of leaving the European Union, in particular because the European Union itself has been remarkably transparent in its approach to Brexit.
Now that the moment of Brexit gives way to the complex process of developing the future of UK-EU relations, the transparency necessarily becomes opaque. As the UK settles into its new status as a non-member, the European Union (like other trade partners) will play their cards close to their chests. Moreover, the UK will need to balance trade relationships with multiple trading partners.
While the future association agreement between the EU and the UK will be far more important to the UK, and will be far more intricate in its technicalities, than relations with the two vast single-state economies; China and the USA will negotiate with the UK while keeping a very sharp eye on maintaining optimal trade relations with Europe.
Beginning now, the UK will be diving into the aquarium and learning to swim with the orcas. The sharp traders of Directorate E, European Directorate-General for Trade; the smiling assassins of the Office of the United States Trade Representative; the hard cases from China's Central Commission on the Economy and Finance will be creating a new world for British importers and exporters.
Everyone who does business in the UK or who wants to do business with British companies needs to understand this interactivity; misunderstanding it has helped make the process of Brexit so rough and slovenly so far. Keeping up the value of our insights means opening up that interactivity, and that means wargaming.
Warfare is a contest of wills. Waging war is turning that contest into destruction and killing. Wargaming enables people to understand the contest of wills by bringing the inherent conflict and confrontation of warfare to a table without the destruction and killing.
We are wargaming the transition of the United Kingdom from a member state of the European Union into a neighbour and trading partner of the European Union. This means taking the passions and interests that will govern that future state of affairs, reducing and simplifying them where possible; but keeping the idea of conflict and confrontation.
When we convert the idea of gaming from military training to commercial strategy, we leave the word 'war' on it. I suppose that's to emphasise that we're not doing this for fun; that this is gaming with a serious purpose. This does have a serious purpose; but I have to say that workshopping and wargaming futures is an awful lot of fun. For me, it's such a pleasure to have my brain fully engaged with the thoughts of a lot of bright people as we use simple structures to muster their thoughts.
Our game, in its full form, is designed to give a room full of people an understanding of the give-and-take that is going to create the future relationship between the UK and the EU; and the future of the UK's place in world trade. This is the process that is going to create the future of Britain, and we have to understand it the best we can as soon as we can.
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is Devil’s Advocate and Principal at Nusbacher & Associates.