Risk mitigation versus optimism – Brexit & Y2K

The continuing Brexit shambles reminds me of a row in the approach to Y2K at the large insurer where I was working for IBM. Should a business critical back office system on which the company accounts depended be replaced or made Y2K compliant? I was brought in to review the problem and report with a recommendation.

One camp insisted that as an insurer they had to manage risk, so Y2K compliance with a more leisurely replacement was the only responsible option. The opposing camp consisted of business managers who had been assigned responsibility for managing new programmes. They would be responsible for a replacement and they insisted they could deliver a new system on time, even though they had no experience of delivering such an application. My investigation showed me they had no grasp of the business or technical complexities, but they firmly believed that waterfall projects could be forced through successfully by charismatic management. All the previous failures were down to “weak management” and “bad luck”. Making the old system compliant would be an insult to their competence.

My report pointed out the relative risks & costs of the options. I sold Y2K compliance to the UK Accountant, sketching out the implications of the various options on a flipchart in a 30 minute chat so I had agreement before I’d even finished the report. The charismatic crew were furious, but silenced. The old system was Y2K compliant in time. The proposed new one could not have been delivered when it was needed. It would have been sunk by problems with upstream dependencies I was aware of but the charismatics refused to acknowledge as being relevant.

If the charismatics’ solution had been chosen the company would have lost the use of a business critical application in late 1999. No contingency arrangements would have been possible and the company would have been unable to produce credible reserves, vital for an insurance company’s accounts. The external auditors would have been unable to pass the accounts. The share price would have collapsed and the company would have been sunk. I’m sure the charismatics would have blamed bad luck, and other people. “It was those dependencies, not us. We were let down”. That was a large, public limited company. If my advice had been rejected the people who wanted the old system to be made Y2K compliant would have brought in the internal auditors, who in turn would have escalated their concern to the board’s audit committee if necessary. If there had still been no action they would have taken the matter to the external auditors.

That’s how things should work in a big corporation. Of course they often don’t and the auditors can lose their nerve, or choose to hope that things will work out well. There is at least a mechanism that can be followed if people decide to perform their job responsibly. With Brexit there is a cavalier unwillingness to think about risk and complexity that is reminiscent of those irresponsibly optimistic managers. We are supposed to trust politicians who can offer us nothing more impressive than “trust me” and “it’s their fault” and who are offering no clear contingency arrangements if their cheery optimism proves unfounded. There is a mechanism to hold them to acccount. That is the responsibility of Parliament. Will the House of Commons step up to the job? We’ll see.

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