A Crucial Conversation

“April is the cruelest month.” 
     ~T.S. Eliot

In a day’s time, how many conversations do you have on the job? Almost too many to count. 
Even before the day officially starts, there’s the predictable early morning chit-chat at the coffee pot, with a couple of fellow early birds. There’s the spontaneous conversation that always breaks out after the toolbox safety meeting. Somebody sees you and asks a question. You pick up the phone and ask somebody one yourself. The discussion in the Tuesday morning staff meeting among your boss and your peers, over what the first name should be on the new policy manual: safety or environment.
Conversation – the two way exchange of information, ideas, observations and opinions – is a huge part of the world of work. In the big scheme of things, most conversations aren’t that big a deal: they’re simply the oil that keeps the wheels of relationships turning smoothly and efficiently. After all, organizations are populated with people, we humans are social creatures and talking is one of our collective core competencies. On that point, leaders are no different than their followers.
Still, when a leader gets in on the conversation, they’ll always be the leader – in the minds of their followers.  There are no off-camera moments.
In the practice of leadership, what a leader says – words – represents a big part of their leadership process. Big in terms of frequency and duration, but not necessarily in terms of influence. That’s because every follower on the planet knows actions speak more powerfully than words. In the words of Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, “Talk is cheap. Play the game.” 
Johnny U. wasn’t just a great quarterback: he was a great leader. A quiet leader, which now seems a lost art.
There are many occasions when a leader’s words are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  But there can be situations where a leader’s words represent action: for example, when a leader makes a decision. 
Saying, “Stop the job!” serves as the perfect example of that principle.

A Crucial Conversation

When the calendar turns to April, I can’t help but think about one crucial conversation that took place not in the sanitized world of a training class or town hall meeting, but out in the real world of operations.  Happened on April 20, 2010, making this history, not news.  It was a conversation – dispute would be the more apt characterization – in an 11 am Tuesday staff meeting, witnessed by all the usual suspects who had gathered around the conference room table that morning.
The principals were the two senior leaders in the room. I picture them sitting at opposite ends of table. Sat in enough of these to feel safe in saying that. Each leader with more than thirty years’ experience; each employed by a publicly traded company; one was the customer, the other the contractor. 
This was a conversation between two grownups. 

What made this one crucial was the subject of the conversation. At issue: was the plan of action proposed by the customer safe enough for the contractor and his staff to execute? The contractor was convinced it was not. For good reason: the proposal represented a big change in how the work was going to be done; it didn’t follow the regulatory requirements; execution would mean taking on a lot of risk.
As to what was at risk – the potential consequences should things go wrong – the conference room was on a drilling rig floating in 5,000 feet of water, with 126 people on board; the dispute involved how to maintain control over an undersea oil well.
Yes, this was the Deepwater Horizon; you know exactly how that story ended. 
What you might not know are the exact details of that crucial conversation – and the fateful decision made in the meeting that was the proximate cause of the event. You don’t, but Congress did: they interviewed the eyewitnesses sitting in the meeting. The principals chose not to testify, on advice of counsel.
One of the eyewitnesses was Doug Brown, a senior maintenance technician. He called the meeting a “skirmish” and explained what took place. Here’s what was reported in the Wall Street Journal:

“Mr. Brown said Transocean’s crew leaders – including the rig operator’s top manager, Jimmy W. Harrell – strongly objected to a decision by BP’s top representative, or “company man,” over how to start removing heavy drilling fluid and replacing it with lighter seawater from a riser pipe connected to the well head. 

“The company man was basically saying, ‘This is how it’s gonna be.’”

As to the reaction by the contractor’s senior leader:

“Mr. Harrell pretty much grumbled in his manner, ‘I guess that is what we have those pinchers for'”, Mr. Brown testified. He said it was a reference to the shear rams on the drilling operation’s blowout preventer, which are supposed to sever the main pipe in case of a disaster.

As to how “those pinchers” worked: they didn’t.
Organization Power
I can’t think of another industrial accident investigated as thoroughly as was the Macondo Well. Seems like nobody with an axe to grind was going to miss out on this opportunity. Sorry: failure. As to what failed, take your pick; there’s a long list to choose from: design, execution, regulatory compliance; regulatory oversight, risk management, leadership, leader behavior. I have a collection of incident analysis reports which you are free to peruse, should you have the time and interest. 
But there is one aspect of this tragic failure that has largely gone unnoticed. Perhaps because it is too simple, too basic, and perhaps because it’s the kind of failure that won’t advance anyone’s favorite cause. Quite the opposite, at least in my view of what went wrong. It was the failure to properly understand organization power.
In plain English, organization power is the ability to make something happen – in an organization. 
Every leader understands the limits of their power. But many leaders don’t properly understand the source of their power, and that’s where a lot of their problems stem from.  Organization power comes in two types: control and influence. Control is the ability to determine the outcome; by comparison, influence is the exercise of power without force or direct command, which means somebody else determines what happens.
A leader has either control or influence, or no power whatsoever. Having control guarantees the leader gets exactly what the leader wants. Influence is a hit or miss proposition. As a leader, you hope your influence works as intended. 
Sometimes it does.
But knowing that doesn’t usually help matters. Most leaders think control is bad. If you’re thinking that, you’ve got plenty of company. But if you do, you must go back and reread the definition of control. Tell me what’s wrong with getting what you want?
Understanding the benefit of control still leaves the biggest problem of all: most leaders don’t think they have any: they live in a world of influence, not control.
If that were true, every leader would always do exactly what their boss wants. And it would be impossible to stop a job that was unsafe. 
In the matter of organization power, every leader has a lot more control than they think they have. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking a leader can control the behavior of followers. That’s a matter of influence.
One Crucial Failure
Understanding Organization Power correctly – what kind of power each of those principals really had – sheds an entirely different light on that crucial conversation. Despite impressions to the contrary, this was a simple case of a customer telling a contractor to do something the contractor considered unsafe. Worse, the risk was to be taken by the contractor’s people, using the contractor’s equipment, and on the contractor’s property, The Deepwater Horizon was their rig, not their customers!
Was that contractor obligated to do what the customer wanted?
Absolutely not!!!
All that rig’s top operation manager had to say was: “Sorry Mr. Customer. I really do love you, but I am not going to do that. Not on my rig, not by my crew. It is not safe.”
In a word, that is control: the ability to determine the outcome.  You know it as “just saying no” and stopping the job. Had the contractor said that, the customer would have had no influence – at least in this situation. 
Tragically, that’s not how the principals thought organization power applied in this situation. The contractor acted as if the customer had control, and he had no influence. The customer wasn’t about to argue with that thinking. 
At least not until everything literally blew up. That’s when the customer sued the contractor for negligence.
The Last Word
If someone in that room understood organization power properly, you might never have heard of the Deepwater Horizon. Had that been the case, the worst thing that would have happened was a customer taking their business elsewhere.
As one good leader summed up the tragic case, “Better to lose a customer than lose a life.”
Paul Balmert
April 2021

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