Joel Achenbach explored what went wrong on the Deep Water Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico the night it exploded and left an open gusher at the bottom of the ocean. He found that there was never one major mistake or any serious oversight that catastrophically caused the collapse of the system and the blow-out of the oil well. What happened on the well was an accumulation of risky decisions, a failure to observe small and nonthreatening warning signs, and a cluster of poorly designed, or poorly integrated, back up systems. Everything played together to make it hard to determine the exact conditions on the sea floor, and mislead the people who had the power to stop operations. Each indicator of a potential problem on its own was insignificant, but taken together they lead to a total catastrophe.
“When doing something risky, remember that risk builds like plaque.” Achenbach wrote in his book, ‘Make sure that your back up plan is really in back and won’t get blown up out front along with your plan A.”
What Achenbach is encouraging us to do is to take the time to plan out our back up and understand how seriously our entire operations or systems could fail. If we look for the best possible back up plans, and put in place real stop guards when the information we receive is potential damaging then we have a head start for preventing a disaster. The more we understand our warning signs the better we will be able to adjust and make decisions that minimize risk.