Slugcatcher: Woodside to end management-by-committee, if that's OK with everybody.

Management, the text books say, is all about leadership and making decisions – and hoping that most of them are right. If that’s the case, what would you call a business which requires 22 separate signatures before an investment decision is made.

Management-by-committee is one answer – and we all know what that means. Super-cautious is another, with neither description pointing to the business in question not being particularly fleet-footed.

Well, according to information passed to Slugcatcher by a sometimes reliable source (when he’s sober, on a good day etc etc), there was once a company which required 22 signatures on its investment decisions, and that company was Woodside Petroleum.

The past tense (which means talking about events in the past for the many oilers out there who failed high school English) is important in this case because it is also alleged that Woodside’s new management has put an end to this bizarre example of “responsibility sharing” – a kind way of saying arse covering of the highest order.

Don Voelte, the first man to have a company building named after him before he joined the company, and before the building was finished (Voelte Towers for the reader who lives on another planet), is said to have been staggered, appalled and perplexed when he discovered the Great Signature Game at Woodside.

Slugcatcher can visualise the look of horror on the face of High Voltage (his U.S. nickname), and even goes as far as to put words in the mouth of the new Woodside boss --- “No more, management is about managing, come back to me when a system is in place which requires three signatures”.

Terrific, think some of the staff. Now we can take responsibility for our decisions and not have to wait an eternity for the 22 wise men to sign off on our plans.

Slugcatcher agrees. It is a good thing to encourage decision-making, and to pay people well for doing that. But what about the culture at Woodside? What about the need to actually have people in place who are not afraid to make a decision? Are they there?

Time will tell whether they are. Outside observers hope so, but there are a few reasons for questioning whether the parachuting in of a new chief executive with an different approach to accountability is all that is required in an organisation.

Don undoubtedly has the ability and courage to make decisions, explain them, and stick to them.

Does anyone else at Woodside, a business notorious for its inability (under previous management) for slow decision making, and committees-within-committees. Slugcatcher even knows one-time outside consultants to Woodside who gave up quoting on work because it was a waste of their time.

With the new broom busily sweeping away inside Woodside perhaps those views will change.

But, and isn’t there always a but in these things, cultural change in a corporation is not something that happens easily, and it is a fearsomely difficult job for one man because culture is a deep-seated thing, and a man who has spent a decade or more being encouraged to not make decisions on his own is hardly likely to welcome the change, and may even actively resist it.

Treat all this as another reason to listen to the swish-swish-swish of Don’s broom, and to carefully watch the revolving doors at Voelte Towers.

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