I am sure almost all of you have read/heard about the environmental disaster which happened more than 80 days ago in one of BP’s facilities in Gulf of Mexico. A Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion caused a massive ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico which still continues today.
Disappointed with the outcome of the quick response actions taken in the days following the disaster, the U.S. Federal Government and BP tapped into open innovation and community driven approaches to solve the problem. The Deepwater Horizon Response Website was launched including the information and infrastructure for all volunteers and external solvers to submit ideas. According to the website, in only a few weeks, over 20,000 suggestions were received.
The community-driven efforts went beyond just a website; Bill Valdez, acting director of the department of energy’s small-business office, asked 35,000 small-business owners on his e-mail list about the solutions, and Hollywood celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson stopped by to share their solutions with administration officials on what to do to fix the leak.
Not surprisingly, the sort of the open innovation efforts mentioned above hardly did anything to solve the problem. So the logical question that comes to mind is: Why? In the paragraphs below, I will try to elaborate on some of the reasons behind the low level of success in this initiative and I am also eager to know your thoughts:
Even though the task of idea gathering from external solvers, partners and extended stakeholder communities is important, like any other innovation system, the difficult task is sorting out the good ideas. With 20000 ideas in the basket, the amount of time required to review the ideas would definitely not be acceptable.
On the other side, the issue of having a massive oil spill requires highly skilled resources for idea review and selection, which leads into tying up BP and government resources into idea review for a long period of time, which prevents them from focusing on the problem itself.
The issue of having massive oil spill most likely requires a sophisticated technical solution. However, most of the solvers and people who submitted their ideas to the website lacked such background. As a matter of fact, in many similar situations, the top notch experts who might be able to offer feasible and effective solutions to such problems, are simply too busy to spend their time going into different websites and submitting solutions to different open innovation challenges.
In other words, there was a misalignment between the nature of the problem (highly technical) and the skill-set of the solvers’ network. Having analyzed more ways of reaching the right external skill-sets, this open innovation program would have been more successful.
In the weeks following the oil spill disaster, BP was under tremendous pressure from public, U.S. government and environmental organizations. While the first attempts to solve the oil spill were not fully successful, the company received criticisms from Obama on being ineffective in terms of solutions to deal with the problem.
In such situations, one can imagine how severe the costs of dealing with another failed solution would be. This means that BP needed “The Best Solution” instead of having “Many bad, OK or good solutions”.
Looking at the nature of what BP was facing, I think it would have been more beneficial to take a more controlled approach towards oil spill issue. This is also consistent with the insights provided by Gary Pisano and Roberto Verganti in their Harvard Business Review article last year “Which kind of collaboration is right for you?” which highlights the fact that companies should choose different modes of collaboration for different innovation types or business issues. As I mentioned, I am curious to know your thoughts and opinions so let us know what you think.
By Ehsan Ehsani, Product Innovation and PLM Practice at Accenture
 Washington Post Article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/10/AR2010061005536.html
 MS NBC Article and video: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37566848/ns/disaster_in_the_gulf/