A Scenario-Based Futuring Approach to Brexit Negotiations

A friend and I have been arguing since the referendum about whether Brexit (which neither of us wanted) is a disaster (my view) or whether some way will be found to make it work (his view). Both scenarios and many stations in between are of course possible; and time will tell which comes to pass.

Under the scenario-based futuring of Peter Schwartz, which I often find helpful in negotiations, one doesn’t pick one scenario, one “official future” at this stage, but uses senarios to think about the underlying forces and what is going on and  looks for signs that one or other is coming to pass and uses the scenarios to riff on the key variables and also to see if there are ways to steer the outcome in the light of the fundamental forces at work that scenarios aim to uncover.

1) My friend’s “Invisible Hand Scenario” suggests that UK and EU self interest will allow a good compromise that avoids the destruction of the British economy. This assumes a lot of rationality, and that ways that can be found to align the massively conflicting interests on either side (UK and EU) and a good deal reached or that some good non EU deals can be made somehow that make up for the loss and do it without massively disrupting the complex just in time supply chains that dominate modern commerce.

2) My “Wrecking Ball Scenario” assumes that the UK and EU will find it almost impossible to align around an agreed set of interests within their respective camps.let alone with each other, as the fundamental contradictions of Brexiters come home and the 27 countries of the EU’s conflicts of interest come home (Germany vs France vs Southern Europe vs Eastern Europe etc.) And that most of the non EU deals are illusory and take years to achieve if ever in an increasingly protectionist world in which the UK is not a big player.

3) I offer the latter scenario partly as a means to create a possible third scenario: a real interest based negotiating strategy, call it the Mindful Hand. In this I am using the South African Mount Fleur strategy: show how unlikely or awful the alternatives are to restore common sense sans ideology to the negotiations.

If I had to pick one of these I think 2) would reflect my sense of how history works: contingent, path dependent and often leading to Prisoner’s Dilemma outcomes where following self interest in a badly structured conflict landscape leads to decisions completely against the interests of either side. I hope I am wrong.

Trip wires (early indicators that a given scenario is unfolding as per Schwartz’s approach) that would suggest I am right would include: 1) Triggering Article 50 early before there is a robust plan 2) Continued public announcements of postional stakes in the ground like “immigration at the 10,000s” 3) Continued Brexit ideological perspectives without any tangible trade deal examples with numbers and likelihood and so on. So far the trip wires seem to be nodding at scenario 2, but as my friend would say: very early days. I agree and also I hope I am mistaken….But the signs are not good that any of the players in the UK, EU or rest of the world understand interest based negotiating 101.


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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