11/11/2010 07:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will BP Learn From Their Near-Death Experience?

The Deepwater Horizon spill took BP to the brink of a corporate heart attack. But was the near-death scare enough to spur a real transformation?

Although it's still early, the reports aren't encouraging.

According to a New York Times article, the company seems to be charting a return to status quo.

True, Robert Dudley's setup of a new global safety division signals a desire to curb BP's now-notorious accident record. But what do we make of the fact he's appointed Mark Bly, current chief of company safety, to head up the division? Should we feel relieved that Bly led the internal investigation into the Deepwater Horizon explosion, creating a resoundingly criticized report that laid the majority of the blame on contractors like Transocean and Halliburton?

Call me a cynic, but BP's strategy reminds me of Einstein's observation that it's the height of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

When it comes to action in the Gulf, the company and other parties responsible have already paid $45 million to map the "baseline conditions" that the damaged environment and communities should be restored to.

Restoration is an admirable goal. However, I believe it stops well short of sustainability.

In the 2004 Report of the US Commission on Ocean Policy by the Watkins Commission, special mention was made of the responsibilities of oil companies - and the federal agencies collecting oil revenues - to "...ensuring the sustainability of ocean and coastal resources."

Could BP take a page from the report, set higher goals, and collaborate with groups working to make the Gulf a truly sustainable resource? Would a greater investment at this critical turning point enable the company to restore consumer faith in its mission? And does it make financial sense to stop short?

In 2004, the container vessel Med Taipei lost 14 containers overboard off the coast of Monterey.

The owners of the Med Taipei agreed to a $3.25 million settlement to cover damages and pay for the recovery of the lost containers.

In fact, the money was used in part to fund an innovative robotic underwater debris recovery system. Today, that system is not only studying new recovery methods, but helping to bring valuable lost property back to the surface.

Now imagine if the owners of the Med Taipei hadn't simply written a check, but had committed to investing the damages in a joint venture with the creators of the underwater debris recovery system.

Today, they could be known for their innovation in ocean preservation. They could have a new revenue stream, deploying 'their' system to sites where valuable goods had been lost by freighters. They could become known for "...helping protect wildlife, fishermen and researchers for the future."

BP today is standing at the crossroads. Does the company simply pay damages and put the accident behind it? Or does it take a proactive role, and invest in relationships that will create a better, more sustainable Gulf? On the one hand, we see a return to status quo. On the other, an opportunity to create a new business model, and begin living up to the "Beyond" part of "Beyond Petroleum."

Crisis situations are often excellent triggers for innovation. Unfortunately, most companies in crisis ignore the opportunity, and instead opt for a speedy return to business as usual.

If this sounds like a juncture your company is facing, think about these points before you act:

  • Don't let a good crisis go to waste. Innovation in times of crisis is often easier, as stakeholders expect radical corrective measures.
  • In the face of fines or punitive legislation, think about investing in a new (more sustainable) way forward, instead of simply paying off your sins.
  • Ask the right questions instead of asking, "How much will it cost to assess and pay for the damages," try, "How do we use this opportunity to better understand the environment we polluted, and look for ways to invest in businesses who want to clean it up?"

The author would like to credit Doug Stone of Maddock Douglas for his inspiration and assistance in making this article happen.