The root cause is at the top

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig leased to BP Exploration & Production, suffered a series of explosions caused by the uncontrolled flow and ignition of oil from the well onto the rig platform. This happened 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. With 5 million barrels of oil that spread into the fragile ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico over 36 hours and the death of 11 workers, Deepwater Horizon became the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. An unprecedented environmental disaster.

During the exploratory drilling, workers pumped cement down the well to create a casing that would prevent the pressure from the well from forcing the oil back up the drill and onto the platform. The workers thought they were preventing a problem.

This is what stood out for me from the executive report:

“The team did not identify any single action or inaction that caused this accident. Rather, a complex and interlinked series of mechanical failures, human judgments, engineering design, operational implementation, and team interfaces came together to allow the initiation and escalation of the accident. ”

A common theme

As you see here, this is not a one person or one team problem. BP had a series of problems that spanned across teams and across processes. A lot of postmortem interviews were done after the incident. Fundamentally, the teams did not talk to each other.  “I did my job” was the common theme that was extracted from the interviews after the incident.

The engineering teams did not know what the operational teams were going through on a daily basis. The mechanical failures were fixed as patches and when the head of the operational team was questioned about the issues, he said that with a tight timeline it was hard to talk to other teams.

“Hard to talk to other teams”  – BP Operational Lead

A team of interviewers found that the BP Operational Lead and the BP Engineering Lead only talked when there were active issues that were then shared across teams. According to their colleagues, they were also not working well together and ignored each other often. They were not talking unless they needed to!

Why don’t leaders talk

When you look at your organization, you will see pockets of this happening.  If your leaders impacting the most critical delivery of services or products only talk when there is an issue, you have a leadership problem.  

There are two strong reasons why a lack of communication at the top happens :

  • ‘This is my swimlane’ phenomena 
  • Lack of acceptance of diversity

In this piece, I will be elaborating on the last bullet point – “Lack of acceptance of diversity”.  Yes, this can happen amongst the leadership team. When you have a peer who comes from a different background and thinks or behaves in a way that is not in accordance with your management style, you treat them differently. This difference in treatment could manifest as a lack of respect or ways of avoidance. The end result usually manifests as a lack of communication among the leaders and with a trickle down effect of lack of communication across their teams.

Can this lack of acceptance at the top be changed?

In BP’s case, the Operational Lead and the Engineering Lead had a lack of respect towards each other.  A deeper problem that affected their respective teams.

When leaders don’t talk, I hate to say this, it’s their boss’s fault.  The boss has not made it obvious why they value their direct reports. The assumption is that leaders are smart enough to figure this out themselves.  At the leadership level too, sometimes this is not obvious.

So one way to solve this is if you are a leader with a similar problem is to get a business project where both of your direct reports can contribute together and you enforce a weekly meeting to share the challenges and progress together.  That forces them to work together and see each other’s contributions. While this happens the boss can also call out the nonobvious contributions and value each of his direct reports. Another way to do this is to create more “watercooler” situations for them to have non-business interactions so that they see that they fundamentally share the same challenges and moments which every human share.  

Conclusion

Whether it be on an oil rig in the middle of the gulf or an office, creating opportunities for communication is key. It may not feel like the office example is as important as the lives that could have been saved in Deepwater Horizon but practicing good communication at work will also trickle into your everyday lives. It can be hard to make shifts in culture, communication and office habits so don’t feel that this is going to happen overnight. Be intentional, acknowledge small wins and be persistent. Change is often for the better but the transition is the most challenging. You just have to get there. It might even save some lives someday.