By Noah Graff
I recently came across a hysterical YouTube video satirizing the screw-ups by BP management as they try to stop the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. In the video, a group of BP execs are sitting in a boardroom and someone spills a cup of coffee on the table. The group panics and makes blunder after blunder trying to corral the coffee. They try things as ridiculous as pouring garbage on the table, throwing wads of hair, and sucking the coffee up with a drinking straw.
I stepped back and asked myself, why did the guy spill the coffee in the video? How does an “accident” like this happen? The spill happened because the guy in the video wasn’t paying attention, he was distracted, he was relaxed about the risk of spilling the coffee.
I think back to a ski trip I took 14 years ago in Colorado when I was 16. I met this middle aged guy on the trip, who had some of the greatest stories I’d ever heard about racing stunt cars, doing illicit drugs, and traveling to dangerous places around the world. These were his words of wisdom, “Noah, it’s ok to do dangerous, crazy stuff. The important thing is to stay paranoid while your doing the dangerous stuff.” His rational was that usually the people who get hurt are the people who relax and feel like they have nothing to worry about. You get away with something risky long enough and before long you forget that it’s a big deal—be it cheating on your wife, sub-prime mortgages or faulty engineering.
Toyota’s management skimped on quality control in recent years, BP didn’t follow accepted safety protocol, Wall Streeters believed they could get away with bad bets over and over again. If the guy in the video had been paranoid about spilling the coffee he probably wouldn’t have done it.
Question: Do you think that good BP management would have been able to stop the oil spill by now?