It’s horrifying to think that it has been almost 70 days since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20th and little substantive progress has been achieved in stemming the ecological disaster of Brobdingnagian proportion. Crude oil continues to spew forth from the broken underwater pipe. Gooey masses of toxic sludge wash up on our shores. The flora and fauna that comprise the fragile ecosystem are helpless as they are buried in oil.
Surely, a unique catastrophe such as this which poses challenges unlike any which have been seen before requires fresh thinking, inventive approaches, novel solutions—in a word: innovation. Yet, where is the innovation?
People are viscerally angry at the Obama administration for its handling of the crisis. Some people defend the President saying, “He really couldn’t do anything.” The problem is that Obama could do something. He could have used the power of the Office to drive the innovation climate needed to produce better outcomes.
The handling of Deepwater Horizon oil spill is an object lesson in ways to fail at driving innovation in time of need. Here are some of the key takeaways that we can learn from.
Failing to recognize the problem
In the initial days after the explosion, it was clear that this was going to be a serious situation. Yet, both BP and the Whitehouse downplayed the severity of the spill publishing estimates of the volume of oil leakage far below what the Coast Guard was estimating. No immediate action was seen from the Administration either to hasten stoppage of the leak or to mitigate the threats to the environment. In short, heads were firmly planted in the sand as no one publicly acknowledged the scope of what was happening.
Turning a blind eye to the situation and looking through rose tinted glasses are all too common in business. Consider the failure of Sony to recognize the threats mp3 technology posed to the Walkman. How many minicomputer companies vanished because they did not fully appreciate the technological and market trends of the 1980s? You must always be looking for what looms just over the horizon. As Andy Grove put it, “Only the paranoid survive.”
Not Invented Here syndrome
Over a dozen countries have offered assistance in cleaning up the spill. The Administration has turned all these offers of help away. Many individuals have stepped forward with ideas about how to stop the leak or protect the coastline. Yet, these suggestions have been ignored. This sort of intellectual arrogance abounds in the business world as well. I can’t count the number times I have heard companies described as having an NIH culture.
Companies must look at their innovation systems and understand how to integrate customers and value chain partners into their R&D processes. Open innovation is not simply about finding more ideas; it’s about extending the value creation capacity of an organization by leveraging all the resources in its innovation ecosystem.
This is the issue that has the public riled. Throughout the crisis, Obama has not shown any leadership. Innovation requires leadership, that quality of being able to rally people to step outside of themselves and reach a goal that they would not have been able to achieve on their own. But, the administration has not chosen to take the lead. When BP was short on ideas to stop the leak, did Obama reach out to other oil companies to see if they could help or at least help understand the limits of possibility? No. Did Obama stand up against political pressure and waive the Jones Act? No. At every turn, the Administration has failed to show leadership opting instead to sit back and wait for BP to figure it out.
Lack of leadership is a leading cause for failure to establish sustainable innovation systems in companies. Many executives will say they want innovation practice to develop from the grass roots of the engineering community. The reality is that without the nourishment of executive leadership, the grass root are destined to whither in the parched and barren soil of institutional inertia. Executives must lead from the front to drive the type of cultural change required to establish innovation as a value driving core competence.
All show; no substance
Don’t we all feel better knowing the Administration is going to have a blue ribbon committee explore potential criminal malfeasance at the root of the disaster? Thank goodness BP executives have been subjected to a good tongue lashing. Huzzah, huzzah!
Right! Everyone can see through the bread and circus approach to managing the situation. The political consequences of this promise to be severe. So too, are the consequences within a company when the commitment to innovation doesn’t extend beyond words and window dressing. When it comes to a company’s innovation agenda, all employees recognize big hat, no cattle management and are highly unmotivated to pursue innovation on behalf of the company. If you really want innovation, you must act with conviction and purpose. You must invest in people and infrastructure to enable the environment for innovation success.
What innovation lessons do you see in the Gulf Oil Spill situation?