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‘Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea!’ Brexit, crisis management and sensemaking

David Davis and Michel Barnier in Brussels. So how’s Davis going to get out of this one? Francois Lenoir/Reuters

March 30 officially marked [one year to go] before the Brexit clock strikes – with or without an agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. At this point, nobody in the UK, even the Brexiteers themselves, are any clearer about how the British will actually find their way to the exit ramp off the European project.

The phase-one negotiations were eventually agreed upon in December 2017 and the transition period was confirmed in early March 2018. But for the final break-up, the British government has yet to define in sufficient detail its future relationship with Europe, how it will achieve agreement on the details and how a host of remaining messy points will get settled in the final “divorce”.

Viewed from the other side of the channel, the pro-Brexit politicians seem to have unrealistic expectations, and hold, like their followers on social media, an emotional relationship to the entire project. Yet the British public, at least those who voted for Brexit, still seem to follow their leaders. Terms such as “dog’s Brexit”, “deluded”, and “regrettable” have been used to describe the collective state of mind of those leading the “leave” camp.

How can we make sense of this confusing and increasingly ambiguous scenario? One possible way is through a careful study of the final scenes of a classic British film, enlightened with a bit of management science.

Brexit the movie

Not long after the vote that signalled the UK’s impending departure from the EU, the commentator Anne McElvoy highlighted how the 1969 heist film The Italian Job was a prescient parody of the Brexit melodrama. Released in France as L'Or se barre (“The gold takes off”), the film starred Michael Caine in an iconic role, heading up a team of British criminals out to steal 4 million pounds (5 million euros) of gold in Turin, Italy.

The team’s secret weapon was a trio of Minis in red, white and blue, not coincidentally the colours of the Union Jack. Backed up by great music from Quincy Jones, the Minis raced through gorgeous scenery, narrow streets and even sewer pipes to hold on to the gold. The film inspired scenes in the Bourne Identity, among others, and even survived a Hollywood remake in 2003.

The Italian Job trailer (1969).

In her article, McElvoy teased out how the film revealed British insecurities around its place in Europe, and the parallels between post-Brexit UK and the Britain of 1969. With everything that’s happened since the vote, and with just one year to go now, the film’s famous final scene provides us with another view of how the upbeat, pro-Brexit narrative is unravelling.

The closing scenes in The Italian Job find our fugitive heroes, now in a van laden with gold bullion, making their escape through the Italian Alps toward Switzerland (and its welcoming banks). All the carefully laid plans go terribly awry, however, and they end up stranded, balanced over a cliff edge with their gold teetering over the abyss. If one man takes even a step toward it, they all go down. Their ringleader, Caine, is panicked and yet attempts to reassure his men that he is in control and has a plan – in a situation from which there is visibly no escape. “Hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea!” he cries out. The others look utterly petrified and unconvinced, but they have no alternative other than to believe him.

Follow the leaders

Boris Johnson in 2012, back in the simple days before the Brexit vote. Flickr, CC BY

This scenario can be viewed as a classic case of what organisational scholar Karl Weick called “sensemaking” under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Weick developed this concept to demonstrate how leaders make sense of the unknown in order to reassure and reduce anxiety among followers. Studying organizations’ traumatic work events and crisis scenarios, Weick uncovered key moments of meaning in teams and the ensuing impact on members.

By providing a way forward through the unknown, leaders can provide structure, which is particularly useful when that future appears unintelligible to many. In this way, followers can move forward in a complex environment and trust their leaders, even when in doubt. Sensemaking can also be a useful approach to coping with unexpected changes in political contexts.

Weick also contributed to better understanding organisations and leadership through the analogy of a map as a key tool of sensemaking. Sensemaking can act as a cartographic aide to navigate uncertain conditions and environments caused by the unexpected. Perhaps the surprising part of Weick’s work is that any map can help make sense of a situation, even the wrong one.

In one well-known anecdote about World War II soldiers lost in the Alps, he pointed out that “when you’re tired, cold, hungry, and scared, any old map will do”. The soldiers apparently survived a major blizzard thanks to an old and tattered map which, they later discovered when back at the base camp, was a map of the Pyrénées, hundreds of kilometers away.

In a sensemaking context, the map’s rational use as a location instrument – an aid to help situate where we are and where we are going – is less important than its value as a visualization tool, a practical heuristic – a means to find a “quick and dirty” solution to a pressing problem. Better problem-solving emerges from the sense one makes of a given situation, using whatever means available.

Managing through Brexit

UK prime minister Theresa May in 2017. Flickr, CC BY

When organisations are navigating through uncharted territory, they and their members are presented with prime opportunities to learn and to construct their future. We seem to learn more from adversity than from happier, more carefree periods. So, how we deal with the ambiguity of the present can help us in the future.

Since the impact of present decisions is vague at best, how can leaders and organisations develop greater ambiguity tolerance? With Brexit coming in less than a year, British citizens need to cope with ambiguity while still exercising the right to public debate and discussion as they try to educate themselves. They will also need to learn in the “post-truth” news and media environment online, and continually make sense of what is without too much anxiety of what will be.

Perhaps some answers lie in discovering, or rediscovering, works of popular culture which capture the heart and soul of a given group of people in a given context. Nations, like organisations, collectively experience catharsis, or the release of tension and stress, through films and stories that reflect their values and current anxieties. The Italian Job is one such work.

Michael Caine, observing his followers hanging on for their lives (and their gold), declares that he’s “got a great idea”. But before his team and the audience can hear it, the credits roll. Unfortunately, there was never a sequel to shed light on whether or not his map led the team to safety in Switzerland. For leaders in the United Kingdom, there is an urgent need to make sense of what the future holds and show their followers a map. To paraphrase Weick:

“Any old map will do – even a bad Brexit map may be better than none. Just get us the heck out of here!”

Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1969). So how’s he going to get his team out of this one? Viewers of the film never find out.

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