Meaning Guide

Opening the Brexit Black Box

If you happen to be near Parliament Square in London over the next few weeks, have a look at the rows of Brexit protestors standing opposite the gates. As you go past, notice how the dichotomy of the referendum question three years ago (“Leave or remain?”) is now mirrored in the physical spacing of the protestors.  Each group has clear edges, so you first have several yards of Union Jacks and banners reading “Brexit means Brexit”, “Treason May” etc, then a gap of a few yards, then several yards of blue EU flags and banners reading “Stop Brexit”, “Give the people a say” and so on. There’s no third camp between the two saying nuanced things that don’t fit on a placard. There’s just a gap, a no-man’s-land.

I’ve often wondered how it is that people can be so certain and so diametrically opposed in their views at the same time, about all sorts of things.  The modern management equivalent might be the no-man’s land that has started to open up between agile and waterfall approaches to change.  Try setting up a Prince 2 stall at certain agile conventions and you’re likely to have things thrown at you.

What the Brexit protests speak to me about is the human ability to package up complex, ambiguous phenomena into concepts that we treat as simple, predictable and object-like.  Systems theorists talk about “black box thinking” – the fact that we don’t need to know what goes on inside a box to understand what the inputs and outputs are.  We crave black boxes, because they let our brains run more efficiently; if something’s predictable then we don’t need to burn up energy understanding it.  Right now as I’m typing, I don’t want to understand how all the subcomponents of this computer work, I just want to be able to punch keys and have predictable marks appear on the screen.

Now here’s the interesting thing:  If we are constantly trying to reduce things to the level of objects, then what kind of objects are we drawn to?  I suggest it’s objects that are clearly delineated, that have clear edges.  We’ve known the significance of edges since at least the time of the Gestalt psychologists.  It deson’t metatr waht odrer you put the letters in words – as long as the letters at the edges are accurate.  The Gestalt principles of visual perception are just mental shortcuts for determining the most probable outlines of objects, in order to differentiate figure from ground.

Now apply this back to abstract concepts, and do the same rules not apply?  Are we not all drawn to concepts that are clear-cut, that appear to offer simple, hard-edged solutions rather than expose the ambiguous, abstract and equivocal?  Why did David Cameron insist on offering the masses a “simple in-out referendum”, as if one could ever be simply “in” or “out” of Europe, as everyone (well, almost everyone!) is now realising?  Remember the phrase “Brexit means Brexit”?  What on earth did that mean?  It only makes sense if we take Brexit as a thing, with edges that are clear and discernible to everyone.  It’s like being in a grocer’s store and asking for something: “You want grapes?  Here, have some grapes.”  “You want a Brexit?  Here, have a Brexit”.  Simple, clear, impossible.

But let’s not be all superior … is anyone really immune from this?  If you happen to be a management consultant like me, how tempting is it to offer clients simple solutions to complex problems, problems that no one really understands, let alone you?  This is what keeps a lot of large-scale consultancy going:  Solutions represented as colourful diagrams, safely delineated by the edges of the Powerpoint slide, smoothed over with a veneer of impressive jargon, creating a sense of psychological safety on the part of the senior buyer who is otherwise confronted by an overwhelming level of complexity.  The solution may (probably?) won’t work any more than Brexit will mean Brexit, but that’s hardly going to stop people from continuing to win votes or consulting contracts – the reality is that none of this will change until we can find better ways of collectively working with complexity rather than sweeping it under the carpet.


  • Good article. My current programme has embraced agile and many of its powerful principles are bearing fruit … but entrenched mindsets and dealing with ambiguity make it challenging.

  • How can we better communicate the risk and challenges associated with achieving the end state that is desired? In any environment with humans the change process needs to work with them and simply saying “make it so” doesn’t work (although in the case of Brexit certain politicians have implied that this is a realistic approach and the human condition of believing what you want to hear means that their supporters believe them)

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