While many US citizens are tempted to make political points from the problems we’re facing in the Gulf, there are some basic organizational issues that transcend political parties and get at one of the basic problems in responding to unexpected changes. The problem is bureaucracy and the myriad of personal and departmental incentives that are naturally NOT aligned with the needs of the larger organization (in this case, the nation). The fundamental problem with bureaucracy in both large companies and governments is that there are many disincentives for individuals and groups to do what is right for the larger organization. Each bureaucrat fears future punishment if standard rules and procedures are not followed. If a Coast Guard officer backs down from meticulous safety requirements to be imposed on other vessel and, say, allows an oil cleanup rig to go into service without adequate fire extinguishers, a career might be ruined if fire breaks on that vessel. There are no rewards for being flexible and terrible risks for backing down from the letter of the law, or rather, from the millions of letters in the thousands of pages of rules, procedures, and protocols.
The problem in large organizations, and the US federal government is pretty much the world’s largest, is that numerous entities have their own turf and their own advancement in mind, and without special efforts being taken will naturally work in ways that cause conflict and delay. Leaders must carefully work to align these interests and incentives toward organizational objectives, but this can be almost impossible when an organization gets out of control. Adding a new committee or bureaucracy in addition to everything else will rarely be the most effective path forward. Meanwhile, those who may have the answer and want to bring their expertise to the table find themselves discouraged, worn down, ignored, and ultimately punished for their passion to innovate and help. Welcome to organizational innovation fatigue, and welcome to the Gulf Coast disaster.
Several voices have discussed the need for innovation in dealing with the disastrous oil leak in the Gulf Coast. There are so many intriguing opportunities for technology–oil absorbent materials, new chemistries for dispersing or attacking the oil, controlled burnoffs, skimming and oil collection systems, barrier technologies to keep the oil away, materials that coagulate oil, and a host of proposed technical solutions for addressing the root cause and stopping the leak. Many of the proposals should be considered and tried. This is not the time for bureaucracy. This is not the time for the government to be shutting down efforts with its bureaucracy. If the Coast Guard is worried about inadequate fire extinguishers, round up a batch and take them over to the relief effort to help, not hinder the State of Louisiana as it tries to protect itself. But what the Coast Guard did in this case is akin to what happens thousands of times each day in companies and government around the world, contributing to the innovation fatigue that stymies much needed efforts at innovation and progress.
There are some bright spots of innovation amidst all this mess. Kevin Costner of Hollywood fame has been developing a company with patented technologies for cleaning oil-contaminated water. Ocean Therapy Solutions (http://ots.org) represents a case of successful technology transfer that began in the US Dept. of Energy and some national labs. The technology has now emerged as clever centrifugal separators that split a contaminated stream into highly separated water and oil-rich streams. Portable units mounted on boats can go into contaminated waters and process large quantities of ocean water, recovering oil and returning much cleaner water to the ocean. Their website includes a couple of interesting videos, including one of Kevin testifying before Congress. The system has received relatively little interest for the past decade and the factory has been dormant, but now awareness is rapidly increasing and BP is deploying some of these units for use in the Gulf. A single unit can process 200 gallons per minute or more.
Kudos to Kevin and his team! He certainly has an advantage with his name recognition and extensive networks–without that, he may have been viewed as just another voice in the wind claiming to have something. There are others with technologies and potential solutions. May they also find their way to make a difference. May all the innovation fatigue factors remain far from Kevin Costner and all others seeking to bring something new to help us fix the Gulf Coast disaster.