Management lessons from the Gulf disaster

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The tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is the worst man-made disaster on planet earth. Sadly, it could have been prevented if the managers involved had been more level-headed. But now that the mistakes have been made, what lessons can we learn?

My purpose here is not to point fingers, but rather create a lens of learning for managers everywhere. It is my hope that by examining what happened and considering alternative behaviors that would have provided a different chain of events, managers will make better choices in how they handle complex tasks and challenges.

According to various news sources, we know the following about the tragedy in the Gulf:

  • Shortcuts were taken on several quality and safety protocols
  • The manager overseeing the final tests was learning on the job
  • Approved plans of action were not followed (to avoid costly delays)
  • Managers were pushing hard to get things accomplished faster than expected
  • A manager representing the rig's owner overruled recommendations made by the manager of the company doing most of the work.

If you think about it, actions like these occur in thousands of companies everyday. If managers are lucky, work happens faster, money gets saved, and egos get stroked. But in the Gulf of Mexico, these missteps combined to create a catastrophe. What can we learn? Let's consider each mistake:

Shortcuts
In a world where managers are under pressure to meet deadlines and budgets, shortcuts will always look attractive (overconfidence is another reason). Managers should remember that planning and risk management occur so that projects and routine operations turn out successfully.

Therefore, the lesson is "think ahead" and consider long-term ripple effects. I'm sure the shortcuts taken in the Gulf were taken to save money and time, but it literally blew up in their face. Where are the savings now?

Learning on the job
My career is devoted to workplace learning, so I'll be the first to say that learning on the job is essential. But when such learning involves high risk, it should not occur without the oversight of a seasoned expert. The manager overseeing well operations in the Gulf was experienced with land drilling but not sea drilling. Considering this particular well was causing problems from the start, it was certainly not a situation for learning on the job.

The lesson here is for managers (at all levels) to better understand the process of workplace learning. Learning how to transfer knowledge is key management skill.

Approved plans were not followed
Similar to shortcuts, many managers allow (or encourage) workers to modify plans to save time and money. Again, plans are in place because people have thought through the ripple effects of certain actions. Granted, live situations may have conditions not considered by the planners, so adjustments may be necessary.

The lesson here is that if adjustments are needed, their ripple effects should be considered. Managers should consider not only the first level of implications, but also the second, third, and fourth.

Pushing hard to get things accomplished
Some personality types thrive on the adrenaline created by trying to beat a deadline. They love challenges and, unfortunately, think everyone else should, too. Budgets are another factor, and when projects start going over budget, the pressure for fast results can become intense (such was the case in the Gulf). When budgets go over, it's easy for managers to bend under the pressure and start making poor decisions.

The lesson here is to keep a level head no matter what deadlines or budgets are staring you in the face.

Overruling recommendations
In the Gulf tragedy, a manager who was unfamiliar with the intricacies of a deep sea rig overruled recommendations made by experienced people doing the work. This problem of a manager who is focused on "the numbers" overruling someone with lots of hands-on experience is something seen in workplaces all over the world.

In my book Creating Passion-Driven Teams I have a chapter titled "Listen, or This Won't Work." Here's the lesson for managers: When you want one thing and someone else wants another, stop and listen first. What does the other party think gets the best results? Then share what you need from the situation.

If neither of you can see a way to marry the two ideas, start exploring what's known as "third alternatives." See if another option exists that helps both parties get what they want something neither of you have thought of before.

The bottom line here is that, yes, mistakes will be made. But if we're sloppy in our management, we'll make more of them than we need to. A smart person learns from the mistakes of others. The Gulf tragedy is a good opportunity to do just that.

Copyright Dan Bobinski, used with permission
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