It’s Hard to Imagine an Honorable Outcome to this Disaster—But There is One
Without a doubt, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a calamity of immense proportion. It sickens the hearts of everyone who has seen the videos of that unending gusher of oil from the earth’s crust; the oil-slicked birds; the greasy coating of delicate marshlands and vegetation, the blank stares of fishermen who are watching their livelihood drift into oblivion.
Worse, the disaster continues to expand, and there is no end in sight. Even when (if) the well is finally capped, the impact of the disaster will be felt by the environment, our economy and our way of life for decades to come. In the face of this catastrophe, it may seem incredulous to suggest that something good can result. But, such is the case.
It is sad to say, but most advances in society and in business result from failure rather than achievement. A benefit can emerge from disaster when we learn from the mistakes and do not repeat them.
For the most part, however, there is an inability of humans to identify and take actions that can prevent a disaster from happening. This is true despite the fact that, in hindsight, the actions needed to prevent the calamity were obvious and easy to implement.
We learned about the importance of freezing temperatures and their effect on O rings when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart in flight in January 1986, sending seven crew members to their fiery deaths. Too late, yes. But we learned.
September 11, 2001 taught us valuable lessons about surveillance, the failures of U.S. intelligence systems, and maniacal criminal intents of Al-Qaeda. The cost in human suffering was dear – nearly 3000 innocent people lost their lives – but we learned. In fact, each time a calamity befalls us — whether hurricane, shipwreck, dam failure, terrorist attack, and even oil spills — we learn.
Think back to the last major oil spill; the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. Until BP’s blowout on April 20th, it was considered the largest ecological disaster in the country. Nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil oozed from this vessel when it ran aground. Later it was determined that if all oil tankers were required to be “double-hulled,” the Exxon Valdez would have spilled no oil when it hit Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef.
While there still is a lot to learn about the causes of the current oil spill crisis, it is obvious that the lack of risk-planning by BP and lack of effective regulations by the government allowed this accident to happen. BP’s unwillingness to invest the time and money to prevent a worst-case scenario and the government’s failure to effectively regulate the actions of BP resulted in a far greater cost – in money and to the environment – then if regulations had been in place that required BP to take actions to mitigate a worst possible ecological outcome.
Part of the problem is that after decades of drilling, this is the first significant accident causing an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. When the risk to be concerned about does not happen, both regulators and managers tend to become complacent.
A Lesson for Business People to Learn
Those of us in business can learn from the tragedy of the Gulf oil spill. Certainly mistakes and bad judgment – on our part and those who work with us – will happen. We really can’t prevent that from happening, but we can learn from the mistakes.
Making a mistake is a learning experience; making the same mistake twice is a firing experience. If a management style regarding errors or failures is based on “zero tolerance,” then workers will be discouraged from taking a risk and moving forward. The failure to move forward is often more destructive than the mistakes made moving forward.
And the Moral of the Story . . .
Accept that you and the people who work for you will make mistakes. You should certainly make every effort to identify and mitigate risks, but no matter how hard we try to avoid them, mistakes will happen.
The important point is how we react to these mistakes. If we are willing to view failure as a learning experience – for us and those we work with – we can build on the failure and become better prepared to accomplish the success we seek to achieve. It’s the price we humans pay for progress, and progress is always an honorable endeavor.