In today’s unpredictable oil price environment, the focus is on survival.  Plans are made, based on what Management already know and using previous experiences as a benchmark.

With my previous Military background, planning for the UK Forces in Afghanistan, I recognise that even a well-structured plan seldom survives first contact with high explosives. Likewise, Oil and Gas leaders hoping that their plans will survive contact with the volatile 2016 global oil market may be on shaky ground.

We only have to look at the high street to see how a changing market can have catastrophic consequences.  Woolworths and Blockbuster failed to predict the impact of a low price environment, combined with consumer preferences moving to the internet; both companies are defunct as a result.  Conversely, John Lewis recognised the issue early enough to adapt and innovate.  Their answer was to build, rapidly, an on-line capability which has achieved remarkable results; 40% of John Lewis’ sales this Christmas were on-line.

So, how do we improve foresight and increase the rate at which we can adapt, to take advantage of opportunities?  Not just surviving, but thriving.

The answer is ‘controlled business challenge’.

This means severely testing not just your own understanding….but that of people around you, others in the industry, and even in related industries.

These people have deep reservoirs of experience. They have all sorts of ideas on how to adapt and innovate; they just need a safe environment to challenge conventional thinking and for management to extract their ideas.

Get them into a room, and don’t let them out until you have pushed each other to the limit, in a safe environment. Allow people to battle for their point of view, defend it, attack others and try to disrupt conventional thinking or traditional plans.

Through this level of real pressure and by challenging paradigms, you’ll get to a point at which you all feel exposed or extremely uncomfortable in your lack of knowledge. Eureka moment! This is where the gold nuggets are hiding.

These gaps in knowledge and exposed feelings are where you can innovate, where the space exists for new ideas.  It is also where the ‘indicators and warnings’ exist, i.e. the things that will help you foresee a crisis before it strikes.

Companies like Shell are making use of this concept.  A little over 18 months ago, I helped them run a challenge session on one of their projects.  We assembled 30 people in a room for a day, some to represent the project, others to pose challenge to it.  The process was new to them at the time, but they adapted rapidly and the outcome of the day’s session was 9 pages of learning for them.  This has helped shape their approach to the project, analyse risk and understand potential contingency requirements.

I realise that this is very different to what we are used to; we prefer the comfort and reassurance of familiarity, tending to stick with what we know. But trying to do the same thing as we always have, just a bit better, isn’t going to help – this is the path that Woolworths and Blockbuster took.

If we have the courage to go beyond the familiar, to feel exposed and challenged, to acknowledge gaps in understanding and test ideas to the limit of credibility and beyond, then we get closer to a more accurate prediction and draw out the innovative ideas that will see us thrive.

It has tangible benefits too.  A client’s internal teams were generating too much activity, which was preventing them delivering quality outputs.  We went through a controlled business challenge with them, which resulted in a 40% cut to their weekly activity, dropping things they had previously seen as vital, but were now recognised as superfluous.  This allowed them to focus on the quality of the 60% of activity that had a value add to the business, and deliver it at a higher standard.

I realise that what I’m describing may be a step too far for your team and for some budgets. At a minimum please at least adopt the ‘controlled business challenge’ mindset among your senior team: Be disruptive, be critical friends, but above all don’t toe the line!

This is going to be a tough year for all involved in the Oil and Gas sector, be it as operators or supply chain, and I’d like to see you all survive and thrive throughout ‘lower for longer’. Good luck!

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