Brexit cannot break the Iron Triangle

In all the chaos surrounding Brexit, I keep coming back to the same, simple fact: this is essentially a basic failure of project management.

Experts are out of favour right now, but what I’m about to tell you is not expert knowledge: it’s something you instinctively do every day, but perhaps don’t have a name for.

But in Project Management, something I did for 22 years, there is a name for the decisions we all make: The Iron Triangle.

I’ve managed projects to deliver everything from air-traffic control software to stock management and distribution for the world’s largest toy manufacturer. I’ve worked on software for Intel, Microsoft, international charities, hospitals, pension services, banking and warehousing.

At the start of any project, I would draw this diagram. It’s called The Iron Triangle because it has three points, and describes an absolutely unbreakable rule: you can only have 2 things from the Iron Triangle.

Never all three. All three is impossible.

I would show this to the client, and ask: which of these three things do you want to sacrifice.


The reason you can’t have all three is simple: imagine you have a project to build and launch a spaceship.

You can have the spaceship quickly and cheaply: but if you do, we have to reduce the number of things it does. There won’t be enough time or money to do everything.

This is sacrificing quality.

You can have the spaceship cheaply, and with all of the promised qualities and components (speed, payload, safety, etc). But “cheaply” means we have to employ fewer engineers, and can’t invest in the latest tools, so it will take three times longer to complete.

This is sacrificing schedule.

Or you can have your spaceship with all of its qualities and components, and very fast: but that means we have to throw thousands of engineers at it; pay overtime; invest in the latest time-saving gadgets. And that means it will be very expensive.

This is sacrificing price.

I’ve described a complex project: building a spaceship. But the same rule governs something as simple as building a shed in your garden. If you want it cheap, you have to make it yourself, and that means it takes time, because you’re not an expert carpenter. If you want it fast, you can pay an joiner to build it, but that costs more. If you ask your mate Dave to do it, because he’s free on Sunday and has a drill and a book on woodwork, it might be quick and cheap. But the quality will suffer.

You may not have heard of The Iron Triangle, but in every aspect of our lives we make these decisions constantly: price, speed or quality.

The fundamental problem with Brexit is not that it’s impossible: nothing is impossible, and if Remainers tell you it is, they’re not being honest. Of course we can leave the EU. Obviously we can.

But we cannot leave the EU on the basis it was sold to us.

The entire Leave campaign was built around the promise that leaving the EU would be fast, cheap, and give you all of these benefits. It was politically expedient to tell you that, and it won the referendum: but it’s false. And voting to build a spaceship (or deciding you need a shed) is nowhere near as complicated as actually doing it. So at this stage, it really doesn’t matter who won the referendum. I know Leave won it. I’m not arguing about that: what matters is how to deliver it.

We have experimented for 2 years with breaking the Iron Triangle – and this should not shock anybody who has ever attempted to build a shed – we have found it cannot be broken. The lie underpinning Brexit still needs to be resolved.

Theresa May’s deal attempts to resolve it by sacrificing quality. She offered Brexit cheap and fast, but only by slashing away at the things the project was intended to deliver.

And Leavers hate it.

Remainers have repeatedly explained the costs of Brexit, and the price Britain will pay in jobs, investment, cuts, debts, tax increases, security, the NHS, or any combination of those things.

And Leavers hate it.

And finally, there are moves in Parliament to extend the schedule, so we can attempt to meet the quality and price requirements.

And Leavers hate it.

Leavers hate these things because nobody has told them that they have to make a choice. The “what do you want to sacrifice?” question I asked of clients at the beginning of a project was always difficult; but failing to have the conversation made everything far more difficult later. Theresa May should have told voters the truth from the start. She should have set up a cross-party group to find solutions, and she should have set them the task of explaining The Iron Triangle to the public, and ascertaining what the public actually wanted to sacrifice, so we all knew what to expect.

But she didn’t, because she’s a terrible leader who isn’t honest with the public, the press, her party or – probably – with herself. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t explain the Iron Triangle either, for the same reasons. In fact, I can’t find any example of a politician or journalist explaining this, possibly because not one of them has any experience of actually doing this shit.

Avoiding awkward conversations is not leadership: it’s the abdication of leadership, and it’s been going on for far too long in a crisis that is both highly predictable (most people predicted a crisis from the beginning) and highly unpredictable (you can predict chaos will occur, but not what form that chaos will take).

We have no option now but to ask “the client” to choose what to sacrifice. And “the client”, in this case, is the Leave-voting public. We’ve tested to destruction the theory of delivering three mutually incompatible things, and all we’ve found is that it’s impossible – which we knew from the start, but kept on pretending. And now we’ve got even less time and money than when we started, and the question still needs to be faced. The difficult conversation with the client must happen.

It’s your project, Leavers. And this is your Iron Triangle: so it’s up to you to decide what to do.

If you’re a Leaver and are reading this, you may have decided that you want all the qualities you were promised, and don’t want to pay more tax or lose your job: so you’ve decided to extend the schedule. That’s the decision I’d make too, if I was forced to pick a form of Brexit. We don’t have money to sacrifice, not by a long shot; and a limited Brexit has already been rejected by everybody Theresa May has asked.

But there’s really no time-limit on Brexit, except a random one we decided for ourselves. Schedule is the thing that’s easiest to sacrifice.

(Although one year won’t do it: if we need to train to replace the 10,000 EU doctors and 60,000 EU engineers and computer scientists that we rely on every day, we need to start training 11 year old British kids right now. We don’t even have the teachers or schools to do that; by the time they’re qualified, we’ll be able to leave the EU with minimal cost and disruption; so we should plan to leave the EU in 15 years, not 15 months).

But even if you make the choice to sacrifice schedule, at best only 1 out of every 3 Leave voters would agree with you.

Others would demand we leave with all the bells and whistles in 60 days, regardless of cost. Some would insist Brexit should be fast and cheap, and they’re prepared to give up some of the promises made. And obviously, many would completely fail to agree with the premise of The Iron Triangle, and continue to vote for the impossible, then blame reality for being treacherous. As a vocal Remainer on Twitter, I bump into these people constantly, and frankly I’ve given up attempting to reach them. If you want Brexit, it’s your job to reach those people. They simply will not listen to Remainers.

You may not want a Second Referendum, and I don’t blame you for that. It has the potential to be incredibly divisive; and as the question is currently framed, I’m not convinced it will resolve anything.

But the only way to decide which impossible, Iron-Triangle-Breaking part of the Brexit promise we sacrifice is to ask the public.

A People’s Vote could specifically ask voters to choose:

  • Leave the EU now, based on Theresa May’s deal (sacrifice Quality)
  • Postpone Brexit to give us more time to prepare (sacrifice Schedule)
  • Leave at once with no deal (sacrifice Price)
  • Remain in the EU (decide the project is pointless if it doesn’t deliver those impossible promises, and cancel it)

There’s no avoiding this. The decision about the Iron Triangle will happen, whether you vote on it or not. Either we have another referendum and the public decides, or Parliament makes the decision, and you end up feeling cheated.

Or, as is increasingly and terrifyingly likely, the decision is made without any control by anybody – not you, not me, not MPs, not Theresa May – as we crash out without a deal. And that’s the equivalent of the spaceship crashing into a mountain 10 seconds after lift-off: it will be the only impact big enough to shatter every corner of the Iron Triangle, costing us vast amounts of money, a generation of time, and every aspect of our quality of life.

And nobody voted for that.