While reflecting about the column on careers and business life, I asked myself what purpose could be served by such an effort. A simple idea, supported by a simple story, could be a positive format for learning and reflection and practising managers could find that useful.
At 10 am on Thursday 7th July, 2005, I stepped into the reception area of the headquarters of ICI plc at 20, Manchester Square, London. After the formalities, the receptionist requested me to listen carefully to her instructions on what I should do if there were to be a fire in the building. I listened in a bored fashion, as I do to the safety instructions each time I fly. Then she shoved me a piece of paper which summarized all that she had droned on about. How ridiculous, I thought! Imagine giving instructions for such a dire and unlikely event; this was exactly what the girl had done at the BP office just two days earlier. Within ten minutes, I was in the office of John McAdam, Chief Executive of ICI for my business meeting.
We had hardly begun our discussions in earnest when a colleague pushed open the door, stuck his head in and said, “I am really sorry to interrupt, John. You know I would not do this if it was not really important to tell you something. Can you step in for a moment please?” A bomb had gone off at Edgeware Road Tube Station just a while ago, just a short distance away. This was the third one, he said, the earlier two being at 8.51 and 8.56. Then the events of Seven Seven played out, a drama that the world has seen on the television screens. I had just dropped my wife at Oxford Street; my daughter was near King’s Cross, where the bomb had gone off earlier at 8.56. I grabbed my mobile and punched in the numbers—there was no response. It was unclear whether their phones were busy or the network was not functioning. Like all utilitarian things, mobiles “fail” you when you most need them, I thought. Luckily over the next two and a half hours, my wife, daughter and I connected and were safely ensconced in a restaurant, all together. We could then listen, watch and reflect on what was going on—and learn a few lessons as well.
The first striking feature was the briefing by a Metropolitan Police official. He was measured in his words without raising the decibels of his voice; not a trace of panic or a quiver in his voice. While speaking about the blast at Edgeware Road, he added that it is an area where there are a lot of Moslems, who too have suffered as a result of these “acts of irresponsibility.” Presumably, he used those words to discourage any speculation or hysteria about one community or another, a possibility that can be expected in such an extraordinary circumstance.
A second feature was the strict adherence to fact rather than speculation. When the TV reporter persisted for an estimate of the number of casualties, the briefing officer was curt but factual. “I have told you what we know i.e. that two people have unfortunately died so far. Our hearts go out to their families. I cannot and should not speculate on further casualties unless I know the facts. This is not a matter for estimates or conjecture.” The same crispness was demonstrated in the face of persistent enquiries about “who might be behind the bombings.”
A third feature was a sense of discipline. The crowds on the streets seemed to be somewhat orderly. My best guess is that those already at the workplace in nearby offices stayed inside, as John McAdam’s security staff advised those within ICI. Others seemed to be trudging to the workplace, having got offloaded at some tube station. Those who were tourists stood under the awnings near shops or started to walk away, perhaps towards their hotel or other safe spots known to them. Tourist looking people looked confused or flippant, but not anxious. There was no milling around spots as one might expect.
The fourth feature was the attitude of people as reflected in the conversations they were having. It was of the “we shall overcome” variety. The second world war was recalled, the “spirit” of London was eulogized, the oncoming 2012 Olympics was looked forward to, it was all positive energy, not rumour mongering or idle—or so it appeared to me as I walked around and talked to people through the rest of the afternoon. It reminded me of an anecdote in Jared Diamond’s Collapse. Below a high dam, there was a narrow river with communities of people living on the riverside. If the dam should burst, the people living closer to the dam would suffer more so their fear was higher, as revealed through some attitude pollsters. Not surprising. However, those who lived the closest, virtually right under the dam, had the least fear. Experts say this is because of psychological denial, the only way of preserving one’s sanity in the face of such a catastrophic event.
The fifth feature was the queues even under such a stressful situation. They seemed to be for enquiries at help desks or for the public call booths having land lines. The mobile networks were dysfunctional, either as a planned measure for such an emergency, or more likely because of heavy overloading. People who wanted to contact their family stood in queues, waiting for their chance to get the phone. The Brits are known to be the most disciplined when it comes to queuing, but these people may or may not have been Brits. Anyway, not many in London may be Brits! The New Scientist had reported an experiment by Professor Caeser Saloma on panicky mice. The experimenters simulated a panic situation for the mice, maintained the panic at a constant level, and varied the width and spacing of the exits. The finding was that when the exits were few in number and each one was only one-mouse wide, the efficiency of evacuation was the best because the limited option promoted self-organized queues! Here it was in
evidence in front of my eyes.
The sixth and last feature worth mentioning was the exemplary courtesy and behaviour of the London Police. People must have had all sorts of questions, and must have needed all sorts of guidance. There was no policeman who was not surrounded by a few people. However, as I stood and listened to their responses, I was struck by their patience and diligence in responding without any irritation. One old lady insisted on knowing how long this kind of ‘nonsense’ would go on, but the policeman had listening and understanding in his demeanour, not irritation. Even if it is an exception that they were on their best behaviour on this crisis day, they did the organization proud. This is how image and brand equity is created, not through public relations campaigns.
The world may unfortunately see more Nine Elevens and Seven Sevens. The people of New York and London lead the way in how to respond with calm and maturity.