Leadership

What BP can teach us about IT

While many have a barely tenuous connection to the BP disaster, the parallels to an IT "disaster" and the relevance of the associated lessons are striking.

I can already hear the collective groans as readers consider yet another article related to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While many have a barely tenuous connection to the disaster, the parallels to an IT "disaster" and the relevance of the associated lessons are striking.

Having worked with a client in oil field services, the industry that provides the drill bits, tools, mud, and know-how to companies like BP, I continue to be amazed at how technically complex the process is. Most of us take for granted that gasoline will flow when we pull our car into a fuel station, just as the average worker thinks nothing of the complexity required to deliver everything from e-mail to ERP to their desktop. In many cases, the average person suspects the oil industry is up to all manner of nefarious deeds, just as many suspect corporate IT exists solely to spy on them, restrict access, and generally make their lives difficult.

The most dramatic parallel is that the Gulf oil spill is at its core a technical problem, requiring a technical solution. While safety, procedural, and managerial failings all led up to the disaster, no amount of political bombast, managing expectations, PR, or "ass kicking" can change the fact that a hole a mile below the ocean's surface until very recently was spewing oil unabated, and BP's technicians and their vendors were the only ones who could do anything about it. So, what lessons can IT learn from this incident?

Accept culpability now, play the "blame game" later

Immediately after the spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward accepted full responsibility for the accident and pledged to pay for damages. Immediately afterward, the political class in the United States began pointing fingers and making accusations, thus the two parties with the best capabilities for solving the problem, the U.S. government and BP, were put in an adversarial relationship just when they needed each other most. When an IT disaster strikes, acknowledge it, take responsibility as CIO, and worry about who to blame after the mess is fixed.

Sometimes "plan B" isn't good enough

The long-term solution to the Gulf spill was drilling a relief well, a process that was begun immediately but would take months to bear fruit. BP offered various alternative plans, but when the first alternate failed, they seemed to be caught flat footed and unprepared. In a disaster of this magnitude, having a "plan B" is not enough. Weeks and thousands of barrels of spilled oil may have been saved if BP was simultaneously implementing additional backup plans, rather than trying one, having it fail, then taking the time to plan and execute another alternative plan.

Provide regular updates through a competent spokesperson

BP provided abundant "status reporting," going so far as to include live streaming video from underwater robots on its website, but it lacked someone who could articulate the technical challenges and the plan that was in place in layman's terms. Like IT, oil exploration has a language of its own and mind-bending technical complexity. As people wondered why BP could not just "plug the hole," it did a poor job of keeping the public apprised of the difficulties and remediation plan for doing exactly that, in a language that everyone could easily understand.

While no one wants to hear about bits and bytes when your company can't enter customer orders, providing a layman's explanation of the technical problem and the plan and actions in place to remediate it provides far more confidence than minutely detailed and disjointed status reports.

Appearances matter

I rarely advocate physical presence for appearance's sake, preferring a team that generates results working odd hours from home to one that accomplishes little but shows up in the office every day from 7 to 7, but a disaster changes the rules. BP's CEO and U.S. President Barak Obama took legitimate hits to their image when both chose to go on vacation at various points throughout the response. While these two men's presence obviously would not contribute to the technical solution to the problem, as a leader you are expected to be on the scene throughout the disaster, not fleeing to a yacht race or the golf course.

During a technical disaster, the leader's job is to make the technician's lives easier

The "doers" in any organization rarely rule the roost, but in response to a technical problem like the BP oil spill, leaders need to get out of the way and facilitate the solution lest they become part of the problem. President Obama appeared inept as he suggested further study and "expert" commissions all while publicly lambasting the only people in a position to actually cap the oil well. Much has been made of local communities' inability to get appropriate permits or permission to build seawalls or take preventative measures and of U.S. federal rules preventing foreign ships from aiding the cleanup -- all areas where the government could have provided assistance or made life easier for those on the ground responding to the leak.

Poking over the technicians' shoulders, demanding flowery status updates, and publicly questioning your technicians' ability rather than getting out of the way and removing administrative hurdles and expediting their requests is a sure way to prolong any disaster.

Surely there will be years of fallout from this disaster, and it is worth studying as a corporate leader, whether you are inside or outside the technical portion of your organization. For the IT leader, the spill provides the perfect example of what an outsider sees as you attempt to fix a technical problem. Just as you likely do not understand the nuances of directional drilling or blowout prevention, your constituents care little about firewalls and failed SANs. How you as a leader work with your technicians and CEO and inform the rest of the organization about your progress will determine whether you have the IT equivalent of the BP spill or a well-managed and effective remediation.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

39 comments
derek
derek

Very excellent comments, especially the whole 'get out of the way of the technicians'.... so many problems are prolonged with over the shoulder, needing blow-by-blows, etc.... it makes me think of the old SNL skit of the computer guy...

jkameleon
jkameleon

Damage because of BP spill is measured in tens, hundreds of billions, if at all. It causes irreparable damage to environment, and costs lives, health, and livelihood on a large scale. If IT manages to cause a couple of ten millions of damage, it's already a big news. On a large scale, "IT disasters" usually cause mild amusement, and, occasionally, some annoyance. As a matter of fact, they could hardly be called disasters. The cases, where IT acutally caused the loss of lives (Therac-25, for example), are extremely rare. In sum- vast majority of so called "IT disasters" are actually buerocratic problems. Buerocratic solutions are therefore perfectly in order.

Saurondor
Saurondor

I guess the lesson learned is we are not alone. If the proper tools had be set in instead of cutting costs the whole thing would have been shut down quickly. If such an incident was truly believed possible then all those inventions invented along the way would have been invented a while back. But just like in IT we love to cut corners to save costs. Cheap is best and if you don't even need to put it in so much the better. Disaster planning? Huh? That won't happen to me. Sales guy told me those drives wont fail.

keith.rosenberg
keith.rosenberg

Doing things in tandem is what they were doing to at least some extent. They were and are drilling a relief well while everything else was going on. Ditto inventing and building the device that eventually stopped the flow. However, only one idea at a time can be tried at the well head. There is only one pipe to work with. And logistics is/was another problem. Most big stuff has to be taken out there on a ship. A couple of days from port is what it takes after the travel time to get it to the port.

william_leduna
william_leduna

That's a very good summary and comparison on IT technical issues. Leadership communication and easing roadblocks continues to be a challenge for IT. Most of the time CIOs cave in to the flowery status reports rather than provide the cold hard facts is a convincing way. Thanks again.

jhcloete
jhcloete

Greate Article, during the crisis this was my exact thoughts.

seanferd
seanferd

so it looks like you were really busy recently? Is that the take-away? :p Really, though, if you look at this event and all the corruption and malfeasance leading up to it, anyone, including IT departments can use the WWBPD tool. What Would British Petroleum Do? Figure that out, then take the action nearest to the opposite of what you came up with.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Everytime something like this happens I use it as definitive proof against any government conspiracy theory. The government isn't competent enough to carry out such imaginative and ingenious schemes.

renodogs
renodogs

Outstanding article!!! I can't agree more. If I had to pick one thing I'd change about American business, it's the overstaffed, bloated bureauracy that permeates most corporations. I have seen the so called white collar worker staff increase to unsustainable levels over the past 30 years- from lean and efficient, to obese and constipated. I have to laugh at the business world when they point their finger at government and exclaim "They're too big, too sluggish". Really? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Perhaps a dose of their own medicine would be a breath of fresh air. In my opinion, the author has hit the nail on the head- get these ninny's out of the way when a disaster strikes; more often than not they obstruct, delay, manipulate, or outright mismanage an IT disaster thinking their 'manager techniques' will solve the problem quickly; the reality is this: they prolong the pain. We all know how maddening it can be to deal with the numerous layers of incompetence of government and there's not a dime's difference between that and a corporate board room full of 'administrators'. The question is- when disaster strikes the heart of a company such as a catastrophic core IT failure, will you as an IT manager/technician have the stones to take charge of the situation to save the your client's business even when they think they have it under control? You can't be timid or blind to the potential of this kind of situation. This type of management isn't taught in any college. However, there's one place that will, that is the U.S. military. I'll take a grungy old Sergeant barking orders and running interference between the suits and my tech's any day of the week. I have yet to see ANY college degreed individual learn TRUE disaster management unless they were former military. As we all know, it's not fun to have to try and figure out what the failure is- with the 'suits' driving you insane with phone calls and 'personal progress visits' pestering you with 'When will it be fixed?'; it's akin to a long road trip and those silly kids in the backseat asking you every ten minutes, "are we there yet?" It makes you want to scream "What do I look like, a magician with a crystal ball?" Therefore, a good IT manager will be that guy acts as a shield for his techs from the middle management hyper-ventilators'.

mnikumbha2
mnikumbha2

Nice article to think from leadership prospective

ayaz.haniffa
ayaz.haniffa

I feel for the guys at BP. It is a bummer when the Government is making use of this tragic situation to score points for November. Yes, BP screwed it up. But lend the guys some help. How about cutting some red tape? Perhaps, allow some of the foreign ships to clear the mess? No, instead we want to look at blaming people. Get a few dollars to fund the God damn welfare junkies. Root cause can be done, after the issue is fixed, comprende?. I agree with the author, I am surprised why BP did not have multiple back up plans and also risk evaluations...who knows perhaps it was done? All we can do is keep speculating. Hope the storm in the Gulf does not mess things up. Good luck guys!

ericsaddress
ericsaddress

Great article!!! All to often, leadership/management takes the "blame first then fix" approach to dealing with problems in the IT world instead of just fixing the problem and developing proactive & preventive measure to ensure that the problem does not happen again (or minimize the effects of the problem). More time is spent pointing fingers at the expense of the end-user(s).

r39hive
r39hive

This is a great article. But, come on what if the leader or a manager in the IT department itself is stupid and making mistakes. Let me give an example of a place I worked where the manager used to schedule downtime during business hours. Reboot the routers during business hours and do all kinds of stupid things. These could be avoided and could have been done after business hours. Well, it is true that there could have been safety precautions that could have been done at BP. But, do we know what exactly happened that caused the well to blow up?

bkindle
bkindle

It's always amazed me that a lot of "leaders" always seem to go the route of blame first then fix instead of just fixing the problem first then asking questions later. I thought that that was always the best way to learn and grow.

RadjabRi
RadjabRi

Such an inspiring article. Thanks much.

marius.muralis
marius.muralis

Good article. For me it was like a reading my own thoughts and opinion about mentioned situations. Leader has to evaluate situation soberly and focus on activities which can bring most benefits for problem resolution rather than sink in second-rate details and work for publicity to protect his title... For sure, sort of balance shall be kept, but only well prioritized.

alistair.k
alistair.k

Things don't have to be exact magnitudes to provide lessons. All "disasters" have the common feature that they have a cataclysmic effect on those in the effected area. BP disaster may result in my pension fund taking a hit as it has money invested in BP stock. Thats the only direct affect to me of this. But a fire in our data centre could be a catastrophe to me and the other employees here, while having no effect at all on you. Disasters don't have to have an eco effect, it can be loss of life, loss of data, loss of money. When you are dealling with any of these results its going to feel stressful and it has to be managed well. If one of our key systems goes down and we lose client records or whatever, I can hardly say to my CEO "Oh well, it doesn't matter, its not like I filled the Gulf of Mexico with oil". And we all just have a laugh about it. My ass would be in the grass... The causes are usually the same (and comes down to risk management processes). Its a valid one to take lessons from.

Ron_007
Ron_007

Just the other day I watched a "special" documenting what had been done to date to try and fix the problem. It described the serial approach to the various attempts.

cSpeak
cSpeak

Great article! In regards to BP and not knowing what safety precautions they could have taken, it is unlikely that they would have taken them anyways. ABC News released the track record of BP: - Back in 2007, a BP pipeline spilled 200,000 gallons of crude into the Alaskan wilderness. They got hit with $16 million in fines. - "The Justice Department required the company to pay approximately $353 million as part of an agreement to defer prosecution on charges that the company conspired to manipulate the propane gas market." - In two separate disasters prior to Deepwater Horizon, 30 BP workers were killed and more than 200 have been seriously injured. - "According to the Center for Public Integrity, in the last three years, BP refineries in Ohio and Texas have accounted for 97 percent of the "egregious, willful" violations handed out by OSHA" - OSHA statistics show BP ran up 760 "egregious, willful" safety violations, while Sunoco and Conoco-Phillips each had eight, Citgo had two and Exxon had one comparable citation. Needless to say, BP doesn't learn from their own mistakes. At least we can adapt their mistakes to help us improve the IT field.

stevew
stevew

The BP oil spill happened. BP owned up to its responsibility. BP's president at least appointed a replacement before he went on vacation. Why is it it always takes a disaster to point out the Disaster Plan (or lack of) is flawed? The way the American government is treating BP its amazing BP doesn't just abandon ship and leave the mess to the capable hands of the Obama group to study and criticize for an indefinite period of time until they come up with the perfect "kick ass" solution (do they get their ideas from fiction movies?).

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

Everyone uses a crisis to their advantage, even if it means throwing a co-worker under the proverbial bus. It's all about people wanting to push their agendas and advance their careers. I'm guilty of it as well. I once used an acquisition to play up a small crisis so that they could funnel some money towards some projects I wanted to do. Although completing the project helped my career, it helped the company as well.

mlyon
mlyon

"Poking over the technicians? shoulders, demanding flowery status updates and publicly questioning your technicians? ability rather than getting out of the way and removing administrative hurdles and expediting their requests is a sure way to prolong any disaster" .... Amen!

asivadasan
asivadasan

Well, you said it!! The lack of a good spokesperson only added to their woes. I wonder if BP would have been blamed so much if someone like Steve Jobs was at the helm. It iss great how he manages stuff, like the antenna problem. Everyone makes mistakes. Accepting it and taking responsibility is the first step in the right direction.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Typical IT disaster: Waiter in a high class restaurant accidentaly spills the full bowl of stew all over some high class guest, wearing an expensive suit. Absolutely not funny for those involved, especially for the waiter, whose job is in jeopardy. Other people in the restaurant, however, are not affected, but mildly amused. BP disaster: The said restarurant explodes due to negligent maintenance involving a gas leak, and faulty electrical installation. There is a lot of material damage, and many people inside and around the restaurant are killed, or injured. Applying lessons learned from BP disaster to IT is like applying the lessons learned from gas leak explosion to stew spilling waiters. It just makes no sense.

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

He basically blamed bloggers for blowing things out of proportion and basically said there was no problem. If Jobs was head of BP, he would have called the news media "chicken littles" and would have blamed the company that owned the rig.

Shaunny Boy
Shaunny Boy

...would not have changed much, as it was a foreign company (British) who was seen to be the cause of the problem. Besides, how Steve dealt with the iPhone 4 problem was reactionary, and rather arrogant. His pragmatic approach into realising the fault, but then generalising amongst other phones not developed by Apple, which clearly did not have this problem demonstrated this. Back to the article, which describes the parallels between this situation and an IT crisis, were delivered quite well. Whilst typically a crisis in IT doesn't haemorrhage crude oil to an ocean, there is the distinct possibility that whilst a critical system is down, it not only effects profits, but also client impressions, and the company reputability. What makes matters worse is when the whole affair is made public by the media. Although not direct clients, they can a have huge influence on catalysing the crisis into a more dramatic episode. I think the biggest let down for BP was not having a layman, cool headed spokesman to explain the extent of the problem, the possible methods of rectifying the leak, and the progress made thus far. With all those millions being spent, it's hard for them to find an excuse either.

ChrisTheta
ChrisTheta

Great article. Very on-point and contains lessons any of us can use in a crisis

neilb
neilb

Although, it's been my belief all along that the only thing that would halt the oil leak and allow a proper clean-up to start was the drilling of a relief well.

bergenfx
bergenfx

... is to get the well capped and then see about cleaning up the mess." Thank you for that, Neil.

neilb
neilb

that's a different issue. As yet there has been no inquiry to prove whether they are dealing with a fluke accident, local negligence or corporate negligence and, if the latter, at what level. The other companies involved with the rig explosion and subsequent oil spill reacted with immediate finger-pointing and blame shifting. Surely the most important thing is to get the well capped and then see about cleaning up the mess. It's also not unprecedented, the Ixtoc I well blowout being comparable but this affected mainly Mexico and Southern Texas. It was also capped - after 9 months - only following the drilling of relief wells. I'm specifically not making it a Brit-American conflict but I do have to say that if you look for it, there's plenty of anti-British comments around the disaster. The perception over here is that it is a few politicians who are looking for a few extra votes from the patriotically ignorant. One of those does seem to be your President.

neilb
neilb

about the sale of oil on world markets. I was waiting to see if anyone picked up on it. A barrel of oil is a barrel of oil; I believe the economic term is "fungible commodity". I've noted before that this particular point tends to highlight Sarah Palin, "domestic drilling remains crucial to energy independence", as form over function. This economic illiteracy was the primary reason for the invasion of Iraq. Leaving aside the obvious solution of much wider economic literacy pointing to reduction in demand as the only solution, I suppose there is the perception that, in an emergency, exporting COULD be stopped and he oil diverted directly to the US. But that goes against all of the US traditions on free trade.

jtnieves
jtnieves

...in fact, what BP has done here is criminal. In it's zeal to save a few extra dollars it cut some serious safety corners that not only cost the lives of 11 Americans, but the jobs of thousands of Americans whose livelihoods depend on the Gulf Coast. Let's not forget, too, BP's use of toxic dispersants that do nothing but hide the spill from the surface, and their denial of basic protective gear to workers cleaning up the beaches. Lest I place the blame entirely on BP, I'll say that a huge chunk of the blame rests with the Bush and Obama administrations for allowing the EPA and MMS to take such a lax stance with the oil industry in general. They are supposed to be the watchdogs, making sure that the activities of companies like BP are properly monitored and in compliance with existing, albeit, watered-down regulations. And let's be clear about another thing... I have yet to see any coverage that put the blame on British subjects for what BP has wrought. None. So stop making this a Brit-American conflict. This is an unprecedented environmental disaster. Finally, this idea that Deepwater exists because of the US demand is nonsense. All of the oil produced in American waters and on American lands, gets sold in open, speculative markets. We get no discount for the oil produced here, and after the Bush Administration's policy changes, very little compensation for granting drilling rights as well. Okay... there's this American's rant. Hope it didn't yellow the milk your cereal too much.

bergenfx
bergenfx

?Deepwater is only there because the U.S., with a twentieth of the world's population, consumes one-quarter of world oil.? And why is BP there, do you suppose? There is no question that the US has some serious energy consumption issues, but it is worth pointing out that some of that disparity is due to the US being one of the largest exporting nations also. That is, some piece of that is also feeding global consumption of goods produced in the US. Also good to note that the EU is gaining ground on the US in that department. I strongly agree about Bhopal, and part of my point is that the incident dominated headlines, magazine covers and the news cycle. People did not rush to defend an indefensible occurrence. While it will probably be years before we know the extent of the deepwater damage, I will categorically reject that Ixtoc is anywhere near comparable, let alone larger. But I feel we are losing sight of the forest for the wood (I presume you prefer that to that horrible American butcherization, ?for the trees?). While you were careful to shift the xenophobic cast to the politicians, I have seen you delightedly placing Americans, in general, in that mo(u)ld. I find this very curious, in the general case, and jaw-dropping in the specific case of the Great Britain. I have never been in a country anywhere near as diverse as the US. Because we are bounded by oceans on either side, I personally think there is a great love and fascination with anyone with an accent, often accompanied with a flurry of questions of interest about one?s country/culture of origin. There is a certain chic-ness to embracing foreign cuisine, fashion, cinema, literature, or even non-parochial sport. I am sorry to disappoint your view of Americans, but there is certainly nothing at all resembling, ?Get back! That man has a Lithuanian accent and eats weird food.? And quickly: - the anti-business sentiment running in this country has more to do with Bear Stearns, Shearson Lehman, et al, than anything else. Knowing this country, the trend will reverse before you know it. - much of the change in foreign direct investment is due to currency valuations. The dollar strengthened during that period. Having said that, I will agree there is uncertainty in the current administration?s attitude towards business, and markets hate uncertainty. - Yes, yes! Our politicians suck, or at least many of them do. But I thought that was pretty common across national boundaries. But then, we have to look at the prospect of fear and loathing of the English / Scottish / Welsh. I don?t know if you have ever been here or how much or under what circumstances, so sorry if this comes across as insulting. Americans almost have a complex about the British. I don?t think it is the accent, but I can?t say what it is. Americans love you, the British. Take even Pinter and LeCarre, who are virulently anti-american, showing up here, they are (embarrassingly) fawned over. I am sure that if you came over, you could blast a crater of sour sentiment to your heart?s content and Americans would want to cuddle you and marvel at your insights. Besides, if we have a core ethnicity anymore, it would be Anglo-Saxon. I know the same sentiment doesn?t reside in the UK, but many Americans feel that bond, even if they are from Lithuania. So Neil, is ?belly up? any better? You may not have home plates, but last I checked, you did have bars. This whole uncommon language thing is a bit of sticky wicket, don?t you think?

neilb
neilb

Deepwater is only there because the U.S., with a twentieth of the world's population, consumes one-quarter of world oil. Bhopal? Oh, and just for good measure, Agent Orange. In both instances, there was huge suffering inflicted on others and precious little done to remove the toxic pollution left behind. In the case of Deepwater, BP have said, "OK, we'll pay" and have committed to a complete clean-up and are doing that. I would point out that NOTHING on this scale has ever been attempted before. Following the Ixtoc I spill in Gulf in 1979 - which was comparable to or even larger than Deepwater - the drilling company, Mexican state-owned Pemex, paid just 100 million USD to clean up the spill and pay up for any compensation claims by claiming sovereign immunity. "Step up"? Give me just ONE example where anything comparable has happened and the company at the centre of the disaster has committed to cleaning up the mess BEFORE litigation. BP are getting pilloried because the US elections are coming up and some of your politicians are wrapping themselves in the flag. What other possible justification could there be for repeatedly calling the company "British Petroleum" other than because they CAN? Well, there is ignorance and as Sarah Palin is putting the boot into BP, I do suspect that ignorance is a factor. Whether it is true or not that Americans often have a less globalised world-view, some of your politicians obviously think so and xenophobia is always good for a few votes, hence the idea put out by some Senators that BP are responsible for the release of al Megrahi. Foreign direct investment in the US fell by around 50% last year. Carry on treating companies the way Ken Salazar does - "Boot on the neck" - and it will continue to drop. Oh, and just as an afterthought, I'd like to point out to your gang of Senatorial tub-thumping shysters that this terrible accident happened on an American-owned, Korean-built rig leased by BP's American subsidiary. Transocean, the owner of the rig, left America for tax reasons and is now based in Switzerland. Margaret Thatcher didn't indulge in any xenophobic ranting against the American company Occidental Petroleum after the Piper Alpha disaster in which more than ten times as many people died. :) Oh, and don't use "step up" in a post to a Brit. I might have have had no idea what it meant as it's from one of your parochial little sports. There you go. A nice little anti-American rant to bring on a warm glow.

bergenfx
bergenfx

You think that because there was mis-direction, malfeasance and ineptitude in Katrina, Bhopal, etc that that is justification for mis-direction, malfeasance and ineptitude on BP's part now? Maybe you weren't paying attention at the time, but FEMA, the Bush administration and Dow Chemical all got dragged over the coals and back again (and still are) for their mismanagement and poor faith. Now that it is BP's turn to face up, too many are saying they are not being treated fairly. They need to step up, and others need to quit making excuses for them, especially the claim that they are getting pilloried only because they were once a British company. Nonsense.

neilb
neilb

Tony Hayward doesn't fit the mould of the kind of straight-talking Merkins who fronted the superbly orchestrated US reaction to Katrina. Oh, and Bhopal.

ilya.shick
ilya.shick

I was in Ukraine when Chernobyl happened. Poor Gorbatchev supports costs him bad public opinion, presidency, broken down idea of communism and later on Soviet Union. In my view BP as a company will not exist as sooner as better, MMS is a joke and must be gone as well.

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