A friendly letter to BP – What would YOU do?

Posted on June 1, 2010

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I have felt the same extremes of emotion as so many others have when thinking about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  And at the same time, I wonder what’s going on behind the scenes?  What’s the human story behind the corporate monolith? Are people running and yelling and wildly waving their arms?  Is headquarters filled with the sound of alarms ringing and an atmosphere of panic?  Or does a cold calm prevail?  Are earnest engineers straining their brains to devise the best emergency plans they can – or are they folding their arms and pointing at some penny-pinching consultants, saying, ‘we warned you!’  Are heads rolling – or does a grim military mood prevail?  Did someone foresee this?  Is this disaster an anticipated event that will be leveraged to jack up oil prices (why yes, I do sometimes lean towards conspiracy theories) – or had everyone convinced themselves that it could never happen?  Where’s Plan B?

My question for you.  What if you had a friend who screwed up.  Big time.  Big, big time.  So big that their relatives are disowning them, and their friends are abandoning them left and right.  But not you, faithful friend.  What would you do or say to help your friend?  How would you advise him/her? I’m thinking BP needs a friend to help them do the right thing.

Well, BP CEO Tony Hayward and I are not buddies or acquaintances or pen-pals.  But if we were, I might send something like this to him:

Dear Tony,

Sorry to hear about that oil spill.  I know things must be quite stressful right now, and in the spirit of friendship, I thought I’d let you know that, if you want any help from me, I’m here for you.  As you may remember, I’m a bit of an idea gal, and, in case you want some crazy ideas (or simply some entertaining reading) during those times when you are waiting for word on whether the latest plugging device has succeeded, I thought I’d share some of mine.  Of course, I am neither a brilliant petroleum scientist nor a submarine controller nor even a financial analyst, so you can take these ideas for what they are, just ideas:

  1. Ask for help.  This is not a time for pride or for pretty solutions.  Even if you solve the problem with an all-BP crew today, you will never recover the goodwill lost as a result of the event.  Given the situation, you have little to lose by asking for help.  Go wide – talk to your competitors – and go deep – time to talk to some of those loony academic types at the universities, the ones with crazy ideas.  Because your non-crazy ideas aren’t doing so good.  Maybe oil companies in other countries actually put together a Plan B for this type of situation or something similar that could help.  Maybe companies in other industries have ideas about dealing with the pressure, the depth, the temperature and all the other challenges of working deep underwater.  It can’t hurt to ask.  I know you’ve got a smart team.  But sometimes it helps for outside eyes and ears and brains to come in and provide a different perspective.  Sometimes that’s all it takes to help your inside folks to focus on the right problems.
  2. Remember your values and solve the right problems. Make sure your resources are aligned against all the problems and challenges in a way that reflects your values, or at least the values you want to project.  Minimizing damage, protecting lives and livelihoods are good values.  You might want to move reducing economic loss to the bottom of the pile for now.
  3. Lose the pride. An ugly solution is better than no solution.  But make sure that ugly solution is really a solution.  In my opinion, filling the Gulf with toxic chemicals to stop the leak isn’t really a solution.
  4. Open up. I know it’s hard to admit mistakes, to admit you’re lost.  Trust me, you’ve got little to lose and perhaps a lot to gain.  Tell us where you are, give us the bad news up front, don’t make the probability of success seem better than it is.  Be transparent.  You’ve lost some trust.  Time to earn it back.
  5. Say you’re sorry – and show us.  I know you’ve tried.  But it’s time to show us.  Make some bold promises – and make good on them.  Hire some of the people affected by the spill to help lead clean-up efforts.  Set up a trust for people who may suffer health problems.
  6. Remember – sometimes it’s about the relationship.  I know you’re hearing a lot of angry and accusing words right now.  And you have a lot of very smart- sounding answers and responses to those words.  But sometimes it’s about the relationship.  It doesn’t matter if your scientific explanation make sense, absolve you of guilt, prove that you’re smarter than everyone in the room.  Right now, you need to attend to some relationships.  That means LISTENING.  It means ACKNOWLEDGING the hurt and the FEAR that people are feeling.  It means being humble and keeping your mouth shut when you want to explain and excuse what you did.  Yes, you do need to be smart and solve problems and do damage control.  But caring for your relationships with the people who are or will be impacted by the spill will help.

I hope these simple ideas help get your own brain cells going.  Good luck and God help you with this challenge.

Your friend,

Ami

So, dear readers, what would YOU do?

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