Tony Hayward of BP, an American president struggling to assert himself, and a walrus stuck miles from home: the trick is isolating transferable knowledge in amongst all the barracking.

The tone of recent criticism of Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, by the American establishment would be risible if the situation wasn’t so serious.  Rather than voicing concern about how operations to plug the leaking well in the Gulf of Mexico are going, they criticised him for taking his son to yacht races on the Solent.  Before that, they helpfully told him that he would have been fired had he worked for Barack Obama.  But he doesn’t, and thankfully he appears to have some mettle, rather than skulking away like a scolded dog.  Yet the American president’s reaction to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig is an illustration of someone offering only an illusion of control, more interested in his poll ratings than in helping to fix the problem.  There’s a lesson there for us all.

The failure of a blow-out preventer resulted in a massive gas explosion, rupturing the Macondo wellhead on the seabed, and destroying the rig on the sea surface.  Perhaps Obama tacitly accepts that he and his advisors cannot understand the actual problems of plugging the wellhead (rather than understanding the spreading oil slick, which is simple to encompass but merely a symptom).  Maybe they assume that subsea engineering is beyond them, so they make things easier by personalising a complex problem, and attempting to make Tony Hayward into a scapegoat.  Yet a recent issue of New Scientist magazine explained the problem and its solutions in detail, and in such a way that any well-educated lay person could understand.  Clearly Hayward’s sangfroid unsettles the US committees: he has stuck to his line that only an inquiry will reveal what went wrong with the wellhead, hence idle speculation before the results are known wouldn’t be helpful.  Regardless of short-term unpopularity in the popular press, the most important thing is to concentrate on the fix.

In asking whose “ass” he should kick, Obama proved he was performing for the gallery – the provincial American press corps – rather than living up to his supposed reputation as the most cerebral president America has elected since Kennedy.  Looking like you’re trying to fix a problem, especially by demonstrating pressure being applied on other people, appeals in the short term.  It’s rarely as effective than getting the problem fixed for the long term, and bear in mind that BP are operating on the limits of technology, drilling several miles down with the help of their American contractors.  There is a lesson here for architects, and it’s no startling insight, but a simple truth that bears repeating to yourself when you’re in a fix.  Clients always ask for instant results, but having to go back for a fourth or fifth time to say that we think it’s fixed now, after the initial instant fix failed … makes you look worse than taking enough time to do it once, and properly.

The people who live on the Gulf coast have a visceral response to the disaster: it has taken away their livelihoods, ruined their backyards and driven away tourists.  The same was true of the folk who lived near the Exxon Valdez oil tanker’s landfall, and the victims of hundreds of other oil-related disasters such as Piper Alpha or Amoco Cadiz.  Yet people look to their government for leadership and that means applying structured thinking.  BP can’t tell anyone what went wrong until it understands itself what went wrong – and the process of investigation and analysis has been the foundation of rational thought since the Renaissance.  Complex problems don’t yield rapid answers; knee-jerk reactions and intuitive guesses come quickly, but rationalised thought takes time, and needs the fuel of facts to power its engines.  Paradoxically, the more pressing the problem is, the more important that time is taken to make sure the answer is correct.

It’s starting to look like the American government, perhaps in their creeping acceptance of creationism, and media combines which love witch-hunts, have rejected the irrefutability of rational thought.  The modern way of looking at the world was conceived four centuries ago in Europe, and nothing has fundamentally changed about the lens we use to scrutinise the world.  Newton and Kepler helped to shape the process which European children are still taught in science classes at school: gathering facts and data, looking for evidence, analysing it, then coming up with a synthesis which yields the answer, or one possible solution out of many.  That flow chart is still the foundation of the sciences, as well as any kind of design which goes back to fundamentals to seek solutions.  It may be that Obama comes from a different tradition – certainly whoever named the well “Macondo” didn’t think about its symbolism.  Macondo was a cursed town in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel…

Sometimes, as in the Gulf of Mexico, solving a complex problem is an iterative process.  While it isn’t comparable to plugging a ruptured well one mile under the sea, a building I worked on suffered from an intermittent problem with hot and cold spots.  Although the location of the problem and its causes were identified fairly quickly, several solutions were attempted, and in the end a combination of measures began to cure the problem.  No-one has ever attempted what BP is trying to do; similarly at a lower level, the team of consultants and contractors involved with that building had never come together to build one like it before.  The client, or American government, need to understand that in the modern world, people in charge need to have structured minds, or they will fail to grasp the fundamentals required to make decisions.  They may even need to become technocrats.  However, they can’t just say “I want it fixed now!” as a petulant child would – real life can’t produce instant results, and none of us have the power of wish fulfilment.

It’s better to reinforce time and again to an unhappy client that you must understand it properly yourself, and as you make progress towards a solution, he will be kept informed.  Oversimplifying it so that it becomes associated with one person – in this case Tony Hayward – is the wrong move, since its corollary would be, fire that person and everything will fix itself.  No doubt there will be people within the US administration who understand that Obama’s unsophisticated and faux-naive tone is misleading, yet all the outside world sees is a series of press conferences in which the blame is pinned onto one man.  You could construe it as an ugly mixture of anti-British sentiment plus jealousy (BP is apparently bigger than any of the American-owned oil companies).  Yet the more the Americans attack Tony Hayward, the more likely their bullets are to ricochet.

The drilling companies who actually did the damage were American, and they were in ultimate charge of the rig.  The body who approved BP’s licence to drill was … part of the American government.  They approved the method statements, even the mitigation measures to look after any off-course walruses who found their way to the Gulf of Mexico.  Perhaps in a craven attempt to avoid implicating their own countrymen, the US administation vilify a man rather than tackling the underlying issues.  Then again, you may have come across a similar deal at site meetings: if the building turns out not to fit on the site due to setting-out problems, be careful before you point your finger at an engineer or contractor.  Go away and check the drawings, consider all the possible reasons, then check the drawings again, before you respond.  Taking 24 hours to address a crucial query like this is not a luxury.  Otherwise, the engineer or contractor will probably explain in great detail which part of your drawing is wrong, and how it generated the setting-out problem in the first place.

In that regard, a very useful book, now sadly out of print, is Ray Cecil’s “Professional Liability” (published by the Architectural Press in 1984) – it sounds dry, but it offers a lifetime of experience in the kind of things which can go wrong, and more importantly in how to avoid them.  Good for practicing architects to re-read now and again, as well as for Part 3 students, as ideally you want to learn from other folks’ mistakes rather than your own.  As for our hapless walrus: strayed inexplicably from the Alaskan or Canadian oil fields to the Gulf: he is a victim of circumstance, accidentally photocopied from place to place.  He was used by Lewis Carroll as a metaphor for the capitalist urge to acquire, (he collected as many oysters as he could in Carroll’s poem) so it’s perhaps appropriate that he’s cropped up here.  A walrus off the Florida coast is no more unlikely than putting people in charge of things without educating them in how to react rationally when those things go wrong.

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