Why BP and Virtual Teams Need Clear Operating Principles
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted July 14, 2010

We may never know what sequence of events set off the greatest environmental catastrophe of our time. What we do know is that there seemed to be a difference of opinion among decision-makers when it came to making a crucial trade-off between safety and profit. Add to that, it seemed unclear as to who, precisely, had the authority to make the decision to stop the drilling when a concerned staffer alerted management of the impending danger.

Having agreed-upon operating principles up front might have helped the drilling team avert this unnecessary disaster, just as they can help any kind of team make well-informed decisions quickly. For virtual teams, it’s especially important to have explicit operating principles, since there are so few opportunities for needed discussions when a momentous decision must be made with great urgency.

So what makes a good operating principle? It should be…

  • Specific enough to drive behavior –i.e., it should be clear to all what decisions and actions are needed as a result
  • Energizing and engaging (and often, inspiring)
  • Simple and clear – preferably one sentence or phrase
  • Worded in the positive – i.e., state what your organization is about versus what it is not about
  • Written in the present tense, as though the principle is in practice today, vs. sometime in the future
  • Able to be tested and validated with real-life scenarios

Once a team has agreed on the wording of a principle, the next (and arguably harder) step is discussing the real implications. For the BP drilling team, let’s imagine a principle: “We take all measures possible to safeguard the safety of our team members and the environment we have pledged to protect.”

Do we really mean all measures, even if it means that to stop drilling will cost us millions of dollars, and hours (or days) of delays? Who’s to say what’s “possible?” What if some of us feel the operation is safe and some don’t? Who has the right to shut down the operation? What if our team members are likely to be safe, but the risk to the environment is great? Questions like this need to be answered and agreed to up front. Only then will people know what this principle really means.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy