I spent the weekend visiting some friends in Henley - one of the most beautiful and quintessentially British places in the country. As the weather was in our favour, we decided to take a rowing boat out, and row to a nearby inn for a spot of lunch. When in Rome, right?
As we set-off, little did we know that a frightening experience was waiting for us.
After a productive start, we had to row through a lock in order to get further downstream. The lock keeper shuffled our rowing boat in along with a barge and several other powerboats, the lock was released, and water started pouring in.
So far, so good.
As the boat rose up through the water, my wife pointed to the opposite end of the boat and exclaimed "Why is that so much lower than this end?".... as several onlookers started shouting at us to get out of the boat. To my horror, as I turned around, I saw water was gushing into the bow. My wife and her friend leapt-out immediately, grabbing onto the banks of the lock. I tried to help release the boat with my friend, quickly gave-up and we also jumped to grab onto the top of the lock. By this time the water had reached thigh-height! A crowd appeared to drag us all out of the lock, and as we stood looking down on the sinking boat, full of water, realised that we'd had a lucky escape.
We were later told that the top of our boat had gotten stuck on the gate of the lock and was dragged down as the water rose. The lock keeper also told us that the last time this had happened, a couple of children sadly died. It all happened so quickly - I could see how easy it would have been to make a mistake and this story could have had a very different ending.
After reflecting on our experience this week, all four of us have learned some important lessons about how to react in a crisis. And whether that crisis is a sinking boat or a sinking project, hopefully they'll apply just as readily:
There was a point at which all of us in the boat realised that things were not going well. What was interesting is that we all realised it at different times. For me, a side order of pride and a portion of optimism stopped me leaving the boat straight away, but delaying a minute more and things might have turned out very differently.
I sometimes wonder about projects such as HS2 - how often is a reality check called? How often does pride and optimism cloud judgement, when sometimes the most courageous thing to do is let the boat sink?
Look around. Often. Trust in others' perspectives.
There's often an assumption in times of crisis that you have the best (and sometimes only) perspective of what's happening. The lock incident was a timely reminder that, out of everyone in that boat, I was in the worst possible position to see what was happening. I was happy to trust everyone else's perspectives in making a decision before I'd had time to gather all the information.
Which brings me to my favourite Ferris Bueller quote:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Working together is better than apportioning blame.
We never shared a conversation about who was to blame. It was simply an accident and we were all thankful to have escaped unhurt and to the strangers who came to help. Responsibility and accountability are important, but in the workplace it can be very easily to use these to cultivate a culture of blame, which will inevitably breed an environment that encourages fear/inaction.
How does the Henley story end? Once we'd all dried off and checked everyone was OK, we pulled the boat out of the lock, emptied the water inside, before we all got back in the boat.
And that's something I'm really proud of.