The ongoing tragedy of BP’s well disaster makes me both sad and mad at the same time, and I’ve been trying to think if there is anything useful to learn from this difficult situation. As I’ve been reading about the tragedy, I think there are at least three things that leaders who are performing large scale innovations can learn from.

Beautiful Complexity by P. Sharpe

Incremental compromises add up:  As you read about the BP situation, it seems like the crew on the rig had information that the well was not right. They could have taken more time before taking replacing the heavy and viscus drilling mud with seawater, which is when they lost control of the well. I bet the fact that they had been successful so many times before, and because the financial pressures were so intense (the rig alone cost about $1,000,000 a day) that they compromised some on a lot of things, which lead to tragedy.

The danger of growing complexity: They are drilling 5,000 feet below the surface of the well which means that things are difficult and complex. Many businesses face complex situations and they too are “drilling at 5,000 feet” to find customers. There is a reason that Google, and many companies are fielding products or services in “permanent beta” mode. I believe they are trying to change the promise to their audiences to tell them, “Hey this may not work sometimes.” It seems a pretty strong acknowledgment to the complexity and dynamism of many of today’s technological solution. IBM in 1980 would never field anything in “permanent beta”.

No one throat to choke. In the BP situation you have BP, Halliburton, the rig operator, and a host of other participants. When you are doing something so complex as oil drilling in deep water, even long standing coalitions of suppliers can get things wrong. As with the Challenger Space Shuttle, complex projects can go awry.

So the questions are:

  • In your innovation efforts have you reinforced your culture’s ability to step back when things are not go according to plan? or do you plow ahead anyway?
  • Do you really understand the risks in large, complex innovations?
  • Do you over-rely on your subcontractors or outsourcers ability to manage the risk of integration?

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