Attacking Culture to Address Problems – BP

by Adam Hartung

Attacking Culture to Address Problems - BPI weighed in late on the Gulf Coast disaster – and my impressions of British Petroleum. I wanted to be thoughtful, as the ramifications of this will be with us for decades. Compared to the hurricane that wrecked New Orleans this situation is far worse. Many more businesses are being shut down, the ecological disaster is far worse, and the clean-up will take much longer – even though New Orleans is far from a full recovery from hurricane Katrina. And there was lots (lots) of finger-pointing going around. It is going to take a lot of money and energy to deal with this mess – and lots of blame-laying (lawsuits) are inevitable

But I’m always the guy looking forward, and that’s why my Forbes article, “BP’s Only Hope for Its Future,” focused on what BP needs to do now to recapture the more than $100B of lost value its investors have suffered – not to mention out-of-pocket cash costs still rolling up.

There is a raging debate about what investors can expect, as typified by the article “Where is BP Headed: $70 or $0?” Unfortunately, most of these articles focus on 2 factors: (a) what are the estimates of cash out to fix the mess and legal battles compared to historical cash inflows from revenues, and (b) contrarians typically think no situation is ever as bad as it initially looks so surely BP is worth more than it’s currently depressed value.

Addressing the latter first, I’d recommend investors look at GM, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers and Circuit City. Things definitely can get worse. Problems created across years of sticking to an outdated Success Formula, remaining Locked-in to following historical best practices, wiped out their investors. Things can definitely get worse for BP. It will not be acceptable for the company to remain focused on “business as usual” hoping to “weather the storm” and allow “things to get back to normal.” That scenario is a death sentence. We haven’t yet seen what new regulations, taxes and restrictions – nor the eventual cost of 20 years of dead seas charged to BP and its industry brethren – will cost. BP has to make changes if it wants to regain growth – and most likely if it wants to survive.

And this leads to item (a). Nobody knows the long-term costs chargeable to BP. Nor do we know what the future cash inflows will look like. We don’t know the brand impact. Nor do we know how changes in regulations or industry practices will hurt cash flowing in the door. It’s the inability of the past to predict the future that makes efforts at cash flow planning mute. Lots of number crunching isn’t the answer – it’s understanding that the assumptions could well be seriously changing. There are more unknown variables than known right now. Which makes it all the more important BP realize it must change it’s Success Formula to make sure it not only avoids another disaster, but finds a way to profitably grow in the aftermath of this event and its changes on the industry.

Many are calling for firing the CEO, as 24×7 Wall Street does in “BP Can Deny CEO Departure Story; But Fate Already Set.” I call this the hero and goat syndrome. Americans like to think that the CEO should be lionized as a hero when results are good, and blamed as a goat when results are bad. Unfortunately companies rely on lots more than CEOs (despite their pay) for results. The problems at BP are with the Success Formula – now some 100 years old – and the inability of the total management team to attack old Lock-ins in order to develop something new. As my last blog pointed out, even HBR doubted there was any reality in the “Beyond Petroleum” headline.

BP must attack its historical ways of doing business. This isn’t just a short-term crisis. The Gulf disaster is the result of pushing an old Success Formula too far. Of going into deeper and deeper water, at greater and greater risk, for less and less yield in order to keep finding oil. Unfortunately BP seems to be viewing this not as an example of what happens when marginal economics keeps you doing the same thing, over and over, even as returns decline. Too bad, because this is the kind of event that highlights a serious change is needed in BP’s future direction.

I was impressed with a Harvard Business School Working Knowledge survey result in “How Do You Weigh Strategy, Execution and Culture in An Organization’s Success?” Respondents overwhelming voted that success requires managing “culture.” And that is largely what BP now needs to do. The Beyond Petroleum strategy was clearly enunciated, but execution remained focused on the old direction because the culture did not change. And that’s what attacking Lock-ins and implementing White Space is designed to do – move an organization’s culture forward by addressing behaviors, decision-making structures and old cost models.

When I was a boy I’d see a tree show foliage problems and my father would say “we might as well cut it down, that tree is dead.” I’d be shocked, the tree looked fine. But my father, a farmer, knew that the roots had been damaged. We were just seeing the slow process of death, that might take a year or two. Fortunately, BP isn’t a tree. And although its Success Formula roots are in trouble, unlike a tree they can be changed. Let’s hope the Board takes action to make changes quickly so BP’s future doesn’t remain completely imperiled.

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Adam HartungAdam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”

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