Saturday, June 12, 2010

Clockware and swarmware in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

The tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico offers a vivid illustration of how we must be the master of both clockware and swarmware.

“Clockware” is a term that describes working in ways that are rational, planned, standardized, repeatable, controlled and measured. In contrast, “swarmware” refers to working in ways that explore new possibilities through experimentation, trials, autonomy, freedom, intuition and working at the edge of knowledge and experience. The idea is to say just enough to paint a picture or describe the absolute boundaries, and then get the people in situations with high levels of complexity active in trying whatever they think might work.

When drilling and operating a well with over a mile of water between the platform and the well head at the bottom, things need to be thoroughly thought out, precisely planned, operated within extremely tight tolerances, and with the highest levels of vigilance.

Apparently that did not happened. A cascading series of small lapses—each by itself perhaps not so bad—led to a catastrophic failure. And the failure occurred in ways for which there were no quick solutions.

Now we are facing a gusher of oil and gas that can’t be staunched and is threatening ecosystem and livelihood along vast areas in the Gulf and along the coast.

As we saw after hurricane Katrina, when there is widespread disaster encompassing a complex array of problems, clockware approaches lead to dismal failure. The top down, command-and-control approaches move too slowly and are not effective in mobilizing the needed scope of the response. They also do not promote the innovation and application of creative and novel responses necessary in the huge number of unique situations.

What is called for is a swarmware approach. Everybody needs to be trying everything that could possibly work. On the ground experimentation will demonstrate what is effective in various situations.

The people closest to the situations need to be empowered, mobilized and given the resources and support they need to find and execute what works on the ground.

The command and control folks will find all kinds of reasons to not do it that way.

But when the problems are as messy as the ones in the Gulf, it takes messy strategies and messy solutions to mount an effective response.