Don’t Rock The ‘Upside Down’ Boat

by Eric Samuels

In 1961, Genevieve Habert, a Wall Street stockbroker, was walking through the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, when she noticed that Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau (“The Boat”) was hanging upside down. Habert attempted to report the error to several museum staff, including a guard, whose response was “You don’t know what’s up and you don’t know what’s down and neither do we.”

Frustrated that no one at the museum would take her seriously, Habert contacted The New York Times, which gained the immediate attention of the museum director. The next day, the work was correctly hung, having been displayed upside down for a total of 47 days.

At the risk of minimizing the current Gulf Of Mexico oil disaster, I can’t help but think of the upside down Matisse as a metaphor, as we reach day 47 of this catastrophe.

The more we learn about events leading up to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, the more apparent it becomes that multiple opportunities were missed that might well have averted the explosion, loss of human life, and subsequent environmental nightmare. The common thread throughout this series of poor decisions was an emphasis on time and cost-savings, which in the BP world, are synonymous.

And while many media pundits apply the usual black & white filter to the scenario, attempting to identify the BP (& Halliburton & Transocean) disaster as either an accident or the result of pure corporate greed, the truth lies at the much murkier depths of groupthink corporate culture.

When an organization is so focused on achieving its bottom-line that it ignores virtually anything that stands in its way, it’s an inevitable recipe for disaster. Groupthink is a powerful behavioural phenomena that makes it tremendously difficult for anyone within the organization to step forward and offer a differing point of view, much less sound an alarm that the proverbial boat may be hung upside down.

Groupthink is evidenced throughout history, from one organizational disaster to another. January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff. The cause of the problem was an O-ring seal, which failed under cold weather conditions. But NASA engineers were aware of the problem and had warned of the problem – specifically cautioning against launch on January 28, because of the cold weather forecast. But the NASA Flight Director wasn’t aware of the engineers concern, because a group of NASA executives, to whom the engineers’ report was filed, decided not to act on the warning, as they were collectively frustrated by recent launch delays and emboldened by the overall success of the space shuttle program.

Ultimately, groupthink – a culture of don’t rock the boat, if you know what’s good for you, is a conditioned state of thinking and can only survive if the individuals within the group remain controlled. And these are powerful controls that take many forms; fear, greed, security, even simple peer pressure.

And while it may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, groupthink can come from either top-down or bottom-up within an organization, as powerful forming forces don’t always come from the corner office. Either way, the phenomenon can only occur when allowed to gestate, because groupthink doesn’t occur overnight, or the moment an organization is formed. The conditioning required takes time and the right (or perhaps more accurately – wrong) environment in which to flourish.

So when the time comes to postscript the Gulf oil disaster and attest responsibility and consequences, we’ll no doubt hear a lot about regulations, oversight (the Minerals Management Service appears to be its own case study in dysfunction), and no end of technical excuses from failed blow-out preventers to methane bubbles, but will anyone address the fundamental issue of dysfunctional corporate culture?

  • Follow me on Twitter
  • Email Me
  • Call Me
  • Check me out on Facebook