A Management Problem Should Be Easy To Fix, Right? – Reflecting On BP’s Failure

Management: Organization and coordination of the activities of an enterprise in accordance with certain policies and in achievement of clearly defined objectives.


It is hard to escape news about the BP Oil Disaster.  It is omnipresent, as it should be.  But part of this week’s news has to do with the judge’s decision to block the Obama ordered 6-month moratorium on drilling.

In a Christian Science Monitor article on the decision, we find this note:

“This is not an engineering problem, it’s a management problem, and it’s BP’s management that screwed up,” says Bruce Johnson, a professor emeritus of oceanic engineering at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The moratorium “penalizes the whole industry for the mistakes of” BP management, he adds.

Here’s my thought:  since it’s a “management problem,” then the solution should be that we make sure there are no more management problems.  How confident do we feel about this actually happening?

In fact, I spoke to a group of 200-300 hundred at a conference this week, and asked this question:  “how many of you have ever seen a management failure that created problems for your organization?  Practically every hand went up.

In other words, we have not yet learned how to manage with enough precision and effectiveness to insure all desirable outcomes – to assure “achievement of clearly defined objectives.”

Thus we know that management failure does not have an easy fix.  And we know that there have been many major problems caused by management failures in major corporations/companies/organizations over the last few years.

Gary Hamel points out part of the problem in his book The Future of Management. Here’s an excerpt:

Unlike the laws of physics, the laws of management are neither foreordained nor eternal…  Whiplash change, fleeting advantages, technological disruptions, rebellious shareholders – these 21st- century challenges are testing the design limitations of organizations around the world and are exposing the limitations of a management model that has failed to keep pace with the times.

Part of the problem of “these times” is the difficulty of managing all of the complexity (like drilling down nearly 5 miles below the surface of the ocean).  The challenges of such complexity require near flawless management practices.  And we have attained nothing like such near-flawlessness.

When the problem is small, management failure is survivable.  When the problem is massive, like the BP management failure, the consequences can be almost more than we can bear.

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