Published on The Daily Beast- June 3, 2010
As Deepwater Horizon enters into its seventh week, one can’t help having a bit of the ‘I’m stuck in a bad episode of the Twilight Zone’ feeling. First, the problem seems unending. No high tech magic wands. No victory laps. Rather, we’ve witnessed a series of techno-flops. Top kill, robots, container domes, riser insertion tubes, and now back to more robots. A definitive remedy, we’re told, can’t be in place until August. Hmm let’s see 5,000 (or is it 100,000) barrels per day times another 45 (or is it 60 or 90) days. Only one thing seems for sure. We’re talking a mighty big number.
And that’s the second striking feature of Deepwater: the mushiness of the data and the conflicting positions that result from it. Leak volume is only one example. Opinions also vary on environmental impact, costs, and on policy remedies that are now needed. We are now in the realm of challenges that defy simple technological solutions or orderly chains of command. It’s business Rashomon now, since how we define the problem (profits, environmental and economic impact, academic truth, regulatory oversight) determines what we think should be done.
This takes us to the third aspect of Deepwater, the ‘could have been’s’ that emerge as we walk the cat back. If only BP had better safety procedures, or had questioned the well’s stability earlier or had used a more conservative remedy in the first place. If only the federal government had stepped in sooner. If only our policies with regard to regulation of oil companies and offshore drilling had been more strict. If only we had brought other expert opinion in at the outset to work the problem.
Welcome to the world of wicked problems.
I touched on this topic in relation to the UK elections, but it is worth expanding on in relation to Deepwater. Almost 40 years ago, the social scientist Horst Rittel proposed the term “wicked problems” as a way of trying to understand why some challenges were intractable and highly difficult to deal with. Wicked problems shared certain characteristics, in his view. First, they were hard to define. (Is Deepwater an issue of technology, safety, policy, or environmental policy? Yes.) Second, they involved many different and hard to reconcile perspectives? (For sure, in this case.) Third, solutions weren’t true or false, but better or worse, and hard to test in advance. (Yep.) And fourth, the result is a brace of conflicting opinions. (Definitely.)
So there may be an important, teachable element to the Deepwater story. While we would have all preferred a straightforward technological success story (top kill worked and it’s Miller time), the failure goes much further. It’s about how we look at our preparedness to address complex challenges and how we might deal with them better in the future. Because we are in an era of wicked problems, folks, and something like this, sadly, is bound to happen again. And again.
How do you deal with wicked problems? The key for Rittel was bringing a highly creative process to bear and collecting all stakeholders and viewpoints under one roof to engage in the work. He felt it important not to give in to the temptation to simplify, but rather to examine the challenge in all its complexity. Some of this is reflected in our president’s recent statement, We will take ideas from anywhere. That’s crucially important, but success is not just about ideas – it’s what you do with them to make them happen and when, as well as how you use the convening power of government to create blended solutions and fast synchronization among divergent parties.
Where can we find some best or at least promising practices? Certainly the military is in the wicked problems business. And in that culture, you find situation rooms, sophisticated approaches to command and control, experience in crisis management, mental rehearsal and training to think the unthinkable, and investment in leadership development. But comparable capabilities still seem lacking for the kind of societal disaster that is Deepwater. And they are desperately needed to generate the kind of divergent thinking appropriate to wicked problems. In the Deepwater story, it took a long while for academic expertise to be allowed into the tent and for the full weight of government expertise to make itself known once we had resolved a few little problems in the Minerals Management Service.