This expands upon points made June 18, 2010 on a post at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com
How do you fix the Gulf?
The horrifying spread of killer crude oil from the site of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig results from a failure of responsible management. That began before any drilling, with repeated failures to plan properly for the huge risks. It is glaringly apparent now in the contentious and ineffective efforts to protect sensitive shoreline and clean up the sea.
The economies of the Gulf states have been devastated, to say nothing of the way of life of countless fishermen, hospitality providers and all the businesses and people who depend upon them. So, of course, the political knives are flashing in every direction. This will have very ugly effects for a very long time, and certainly not just in the Gulf region. The politics are as toxic as the stuff that's killing the pelicans.
If there were a simple big thing at this point, it would be how to save the shoreline. Plus the fishery. Or does plugging the gusher come first? And don't forget cleaning up all those millions of gallons of poison now permeating the waters of the Gulf.
Okay, there is no simple big thing. There's an impossibly complex big thing.
And getting at the complex big thing must include solving the mind-boggling process we see feverishly whirling around down there. How to handle this massive, dynamic, multi-layered mess of angry people, great international corporation and its business partners, government officials at all levels, volunteers and the always-present critics?
Ideally, all the agencies, people, equipment and know-how would be coordinated and tightly focused on a series of common-sense tasks. You would make the best of an awful situation, and be positioned for the best possible recovery when the time comes.
It would be a monumental project in itself to organize the mess, while trying to avoid totally stopping what now seems to have spun out of control. When you're digging and you accidentally rupture something, you're supposed to get out of the hole and call someone before you drown in whatever it is that's pouring in. You can't do that here.
Let's just say, instead, that someone with power and wisdom – perhaps the federal government – must clearly take control and direct the development of the project management process that should have been in place from the beginning. I know, I know. If the feds had been doing their job, none of this would have happened. Granting that, it is imperative that someone do something that works, and here it is.
What to fix first?
In my experience, there are three basic factors that are flawed when a project is in serious trouble:
First, there is a failure of goal coordination among the key stakeholders.
Second, specific definition of roles and responsibilities is lacking.
Third, there are serious disconnects in communication.
Check out the news stories about the Gulf. When there are complaints and accusations, don't most of them fit into one or more of those three categories?
This matter of analyzing troubled projects gets a good look every time I conduct an advanced class in project management. Experienced project managers bring a variety of experiences to those discussions, and it's important that they make sense of them.
Here's the lesson: When you're slogging through a blizzard of project problems, they are not all of the same weight. You can keep dousing the same fire day after day until you smarten up and go deal with the arsonist. And who has the luxury of just one fire at a time, anyway?
You need to know where the root problems are, because solving them causes a lot of the more symptomatic ones to become much more controllable, if they don't evaporate entirely.
Apply the three big failure factors to the Gulf.
In terms of over-arching goals, BP has those of a large corporation seeking to profit by providing a vital commodity to a global constituency. The more it produces and the less it spends, the more it makes. That's the nature of the organization, and we expect it to act accordingly. What, really, are its greatest concerns in the Gulf?
The other big actor is the government of the United States . It has a much more complicated set of drivers – economic, social, political – and it has not been the decision-maker for most of these events. It answers to a diverse, frequently fractious constituency that can cause it to lurch wildly on occasion, and waste much of its immense authority.
How exactly does the federal government define its desired outcome in the Gulf? Hard to tell. Its apparent strategies don't display the coherence that would indicate there is a firmly held goal. Is the government's top worry the political fall-out, the fate of the people, or what?
While neither of those two key stakeholders – BP and the feds – has clearly spelled out its priorities, they obviously are at odds. And the air is full of frustrated cries from other stakeholders, local government people and others, because they can't get answers from anyone. They can't even, for that matter, get anyone to usefully employ the practical assistance they are begging someone to accept.
Goal coordination. Role and responsibility definition. Communication. Big trouble in all three.
Each of the stakeholders is pushing hard for its own values, often accompanying its efforts with ferocious criticism of its competitors. Some parts of the solution have obvious priorities, such as stopping the uncontrolled oil flow. However, the way those primary aims are pursued is strongly affected by their relationships to all the others.
Sensible sequences, practical assignments
This is too big for us to continue making it up as we go along.
The road ahead cannot be mapped until sensible sequences and practical assignments are laid out. The heartbreaking waste and confusion will continue until there is competent command and control: Project management.
There will be an outcome to all that is going on in the Gulf. What is done now will have results into the distant future, and little of thatcan be foreseen now. We can only hope that a more rational, professional management of the process takes hold soon, so we can get to the best possible outcome at the earliest possible moment, with the least possible additional damage.