Oil and Innovation

by | Aug 9, 2014 | Thought Leadership

Oil and Innovation

by | Aug 9, 2014 | Thought Leadership | 0 comments

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It took a sophisticated 75-ton piece of equipment and more than 80 days, but it appears the Gulf oil gusher has been stopped. It is time for innovation to begin.

I have written about, taught, and practiced product and service innovation for more than 30 years. The BP (BP) spill in the Gulf reminds me once again that the innovation process is not limited to figuring out new products for the marketplace. It can be a highly effective way of dealing with disasters and, even more important, preventing them from happening.

So how can BP use innovation to solve this problem and others like it in the future? The answer is by employing the same problem-solution approach to addressing the oil spill that product innovators use, starting with identifying and clarifying problems and needs. Until a specific understanding of the problem from multiple perspectives is in hand, finding a workable solution is guesswork at best.

With regard to the oil spill in the Gulf, the innovation process should have been applied in two ways. First, well before the Deep Horizon oil rig blew up and sank, BP should have been using the process to identify ways to deal with such an event so that we did not have 80 days of oil flowing uncontrollably into the Gulf. Second, the process should have also been used when it became apparent that the oil was gushing and there was no way to stop it. I’ll deal with that first.

Search for Fresh Ideas

Once the oil spill began and none of the systems to stop it worked, BP should have moved immediately to gain access to multiple technology solutions, going beyond any BP internal technologies to find inventions, equipment, and processes that might help. There is no question in my mind that this search for fresh ideas and technology would have quickly led to a handful of ways to stop the oil that had a real chance of working. It is easy to imagine the competitive and legal pressures that would prevent those in the oil industry from swiftly coming together to find a way to stop the oil. A useful role for the government would have been to convene that process.

The frenzied activity to try to plug the broken wellhead one mile below the waves reminds me of the very worst approaches to product development and branding strategy. It was as if new products were rushed to market. First came Containment Dome, followed by Top Kill, and Junk Shot, and finally Top Hat, put on after the Big Shear replaced Diamond Saw. And still the oil gushed forth.

These were bad products, and when each of them was given a catchy nickname—a brand—the brand was immediately destroyed, and with it a bit of BP’s reputation. There is a lesson in this for any business that wants to bring a new product to market. Long shots seldom work. Instead of swiftly applying the innovation process to find ways to stop the runaway well, BP took one long shot after another and as a result will pay a steep price in dollars and reputation for many years to come.

An important part of the innovation mindset is the breaking-down of silos. BP appears finally to have stopped this particular gusher. But it is a specific solution to a specific problem. How about the future? BP, and others in the oil industry, should assemble a cross-functional group of scientists, engineers, oil production experts, refinery specialists, and others from around the world to generate multiple solutions to disaster scenarios. Then each potential solution should be screened relative to time, feasibility, and effectiveness. Once solutions that appear feasible are fleshed out, each one would be simulated or mock-tested. The point is to generate multiple solutions based on real-world technologies and hard-core expertise—not pie-in-the-sky brainstorming.