What David Cameron should have known about decision making to avoid the Brexit fiasco?



“No freaking way! How did this happen?” One of the many pretty obvious questions I (and many other people) asked once it was clear that British people voted to leave the EU. A lot will be written on the topic. I mean really a lot! However, no matter how much we analyze the event, we can’t turn it back. What we can do is extract learnings. You and I can learn from what happened so that we are better prepared for future important decisions.

Let me put my main learning on decision making after the Brexit right away: do not make a decision that has potentially minimum upside and significant downside. Or, I call this the Upside vs Downside Framework.

The referendum represented already an outcome of a poorly made decision. I believe referendums are by design flawed and should not be used for decision making. The reason is that you ask people whose occupation and knowledge has nothing to do with the question they need to answer. So they make a decision based on limited knowledge and usually based on emotions. Not good.

Back to the main point. The referendum happened only because Cameron made a decision to call it. There was no law requiring him to do so, no protests on the streets by millions of Brits, nothing. So, at one point of time, Cameron should have had the following analysis in his head (or white board, or wherever):

  • Option 1: call a referendum and people vote Remain

It will improve my chances to strengthen my position in the party. It will help in the next elections. There will be no real impact on the economy, so basically we will continue as is now.

  • Option 2: call a referendum and people vote Leave

I will have to resign. There will be significant economic and political challenges and turmoil not only for us in the UK but globally. It will trigger a process of separation and weaker UK and Europe overall.

Looking at these potential outcomes, what decision would you make? Probably not one in favour of a referendum. So easy for me to say after the event, right? I admit, it is easier to write now but still, some facts have been clear before he made the call. So what went wrong with his thinking? I can only assume that instead of stating clearly the possible main (let me repeat – main!) outcomes (as I have tried to articulate above), he went looking for an answer to the next level of more operational arguments. That is a very dangerous trap because you get stuck on things that don’t matter (putting them in endless lists of bullet points) and forget the things that matter. The big picture! That is where I can assume things went wrong. But at the end of the day, all of us make and will make mistakes. And exactly because we know that mistakes cannot be avoided, we must learn a lesson and learn to minimize the downside of a decision.

The lesson is for you and me to learn and apply.  What are some of the decisions you need to make in your life now? Let me know if you want to learn more on the Upside vs Downside Framework.

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