The Cassandra Complex

Ever heard of the Cassandra Complex?  It comes up just about every time we conduct emergency restoration training.  There’s always at least one person who challenges some part of the drill scenario.  Wish we had a lottery ticket for every time we’ve heard “That just couldn’t happen here!”

Apparently, that’s what Tony Hayward, ex-BP boss thought.  Consider the following statements Hayward made about this summer’s devastating submarine oil gusher, quoted by England’s the guardian newspaper on November  11, 2010:

“For me, perhaps the most shattering revelation was just how much havoc can be wreaked by a single accident in one small part of a giant company’s operations – an accident moreover that all our corporate deliberations had told us simply could not happen.  For BP this was the ultimate low-probability, high-impact event…. The whole industry has been lulled into a sense of false security after 20 years of drilling in deep water without a serious accident, till now.”

And if that admission weren’t enough, Hayward whines on….

“Embarrassingly we found ourselves having to improvise on prime-time TV….Our efforts involved amazing feats of engineering – tasks completed in days that would normally take months…. But because every move was scrutinized around the world, what the public thought they saw was fumbling and incompetence.”

To sum up:  They drilled by remote control over a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico into an oil field they knew would be under high pressure.  Yet nobody at BP gave any credibility to the potential for an accident that environmentalists had warned for years was waiting to happen in the middle of America’s shrimp basket.  Then Hayward complains that the media gave BP no credit for its jury-rigged response.

Ya can’t make this stuff up.

Now, if this display of corporate hubris isn’t enough to make you a believer in Murphy’s Law, consider another news item reported by the guardian, also on 11/11/2010, about student demonstrations against tuition hikes that resulted in chaos and violence in London :

“Britain’s most senior police officer was tonight forced to admit he was “embarrassed” that his officers had lost control of the capital’s streets in scenes reminiscent of last year’s G20 demonstration….(The previous night) Scotland Yard’s press bureau told reporters they expected ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ from (the) march, and repeatedly played down suggestions the event was comparable to the G20 protest.”

Now, imagine you’re in charge of London’s OEM.  You know that your public order policing unit was “roundly criticized after its policing operation at the G20 demonstration.”  You also know that just last month, Parisian students joined French unionists in violent demonstrations against pension reductions, practically shutting down the entire national economy.  And you also know that the last time the British government enacted similarly drastic economic reforms during the Thatcher administration, students took to the streets and things got very nasty indeed.

So naturally, given these precedents, as head of OEM, you plan for 15,000 peaceful demonstrators, not 50,000 with a healthy dose of anarchists.  And you get “roundly criticized” again.

Like the naysayers at our emergency drills, it would seem that BP and Scotland Yard might be suffering from a Cassandra Complex.

You remember Cassandra, don’t you?  Daughter of Priam, King of Troy, she impressed the god Apollo so much with her beauty that he gave her the ability to predict the future.  But when she snubbed him, Apollo laid a curse on her – that no one would ever believe a word she said. (Men! They can be so fickle!)

So when somebody leaves a big wooden horse at the gates of Troy, Cassandra warns “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” and the rest is history (or at least a really good myth).

So the next time you think that the unthinkable can’t happen, you might want to listen to the person with the Cassandra Complex in your group.  And remember that Murphy was an optimist.

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