Monday, June 21, 2010

Taking responsibility for big, bad problems

I just read this post by Patrick Strother about BP's failures in light of the gulf oil spill...or gushing, which is a bit more accurate than spill. It made me think about corporate responsibility, and personal responsibility, and knowing when to say when.

I'm not going to defend BP. But I might, just for a moment, empathize with Tony Hayward. Don't get me wrong, I think what BP has been doing is criminal and I think their attitude in dealing with a global environmental crisis is beyond reprehensible. And I think Tony Hayward is a first class douche.

But do any of us really think that this is one man's fault?

Tony Hayward is responsible for his actions and for the actions of BP in the gulf oil spill crisis. But he is also being positioned as the scapegoat in a saga that demonstrates that sometimes, you need to admit your failures and step aside. Tony Hayward's biggest problem is insisting BP can fix a problem that they created but now is too big for them to overcome.

The truth is, in any situation or crisis, what led you there is usually several people's responsibility. Very rarely does a problem start as a big problem...usually its a little problem that just keeps getting worse over time. Sometimes people ignore a problem or situation. Sometimes people are aware of a problem, but don't have the means or the skills to fix it. Sometimes even when people are aware and have the means, they just don't have the desire to fix it or don't want to exert the effort to take responsibility. All of these attitudes lead to the inevitable...if you ignore a problem long enough, something big and bad will eventually happen.

And when disaster strikes or big, bad things happen, someone has to take responsibility. Usually, the person who gets blamed for the problem is not the person, or certainly not the only person, who caused it. But in any big, bad crisis, someone is always left holding the bag.

Big problems are difficult to address. Because it was the collective negligence of many people that got you there, you'd think that if everyone just started paying attention, addressing the issue, that it would be fixed and things would be better because people would have learned their lessons. But that's not how life works and people are, in the end, who they are. What got you into the big problem will very likely be the very same reactions that prevent you from getting out of it.

Sometimes you get too far down the road, and there's no way that the people who caused the problem are going to be able to fix it. They are defensive, exposed, and confused. They grasp at half-baked solutions or go through the motions of looking like they are trying to fix things, all the while still engaging in their old behaviors that got them there. They consult with experts, they read about similar situations, and they vow to be different, to do better. But sometimes, too much has happened. Sometimes its too late. Sometimes organizations, cultures, relationships are not able to handle the big, bad problem. Sometimes they shouldn't. Sometimes, despite their best intentions, it just drags the problem out and makes it worse.

We're seeing that with BP now. They vow to fix it, they come up with solutions...but the attempts they are making keep falling flat. Why? Because BP had the ability to prevent this from happening, but instead of preventing it or preparing for it, they just hoped they wouldn't ever have to face it. They did not develop a culture of responsibility and now their laziness, their ineptness, and their fraud has been exposed.

And the scapegoat, the one who gets pinned with the problem, has to suddenly step into the spotlight and make a decision, take responsibility for the actions and decisions of everyone who got them to that point, for everyone that contributed to the big, bad problem. Yes, maybe a leader is ultimately responsible for everything that happens, but that's usually because that leader is the one who has to deal with the consequences of the actions of everyone around them, and so it behooves him or her to stay in control.

You can't control everything. Sometimes you just have to trust people. The best leaders trust those around them. And when that trust turns out to be ill-placed, its the leader who must step up and say, yes, this is a really bad problem. Yes, we caused the problem. No, we aren't prepared to deal with it and we don't want to make things worse by trying. Unfortunately, we aren't seeing a lot of that from Tony Hayward.

Organizations fail at this all of the time. Look at Enron. The banking industry crisis. And now BP. Sure, there are one or two people that are blamed...but it was the organizational culture that failed, not just the leaders at the top. It was the organization that recognized there was a problem and ignored it, covered it up, pretended like everything was ok...until it couldn't be ignored anymore. And then, its usually too late. Sometimes when an organizational fails in such a big, bad way...the right answer is to step in and dismantle the organization. Or in the case of BP, to hold them accountable but relieve them of the task of fixing the problem. Its clear they are ill-prepared and unequipped, and their attempts are making the situation worse.

Who knew that Kenny Rogers would have so succinctly taught us how to face big, bad problems? Unfortunately, it seems too many times we err on the side of holding 'em when we should walk away, or run.

Tony Hayward is responsible for what has been happening with the oil spill, and I have no doubt that he will have to deal with the consequences of his actions and decisions. But he is not the only one who is responsible. I only hope that Mr. Hayward and BP recognize sooner rather than later that their attempts to fix the mistakes that they've made are making things worse for them and us and is ultimately dragging out the time its taking to get to the inevitable stopping of the oil leak so that we can start cleaning up and healing. Sometimes the most responsible thing you can do is admit when a problem is just too big for you to fix.

1 comment:

  1. The oil spill was such an unfortunate incident to happen and I don't believe the incident itself can be blamed on the CEO but the aftermath most definitely can! posts some great content about various business news but this one really stood out to me. It's BP's quote hall of fame.