Who do you get to challenge you?

When I started my career in the mid 80s with Bain & Company, in those days known as ‘the KGB of management consultancies’, a favourite mantra was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.  I’ve often reflected since then how dangerous it can be to promote a culture of relentless positivism at the expense of openness. How many times have we all witnessed slow motion corporate train crashes – accidents that could have been avoided if only people had the courage to speak out without fear of being branded a ‘negative thinker’.

At the recent, excellent ‘PurpleBeach‘ launch event, I was fascinated to hear Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness talk about how we deal with situations at work where everyone can see the problem, but no one does anything about it. This was the ‘postcard’ that I wrote from the beach:

Margaret Heffernan tells a story about Dr Alice Stewart, an Oxford based epidemiologist who in the 1950s, conducted research into the causes of childhood cancer. Dr Stewart had asked herself why, contrary to most trends, the disease was more prevalent amongst children of affluent families. By extensive statistical analysis, she found that by a factor of 3:1, the children’s mothers were more likely to have had an X-ray during pregnancy. Yet although Dr Stewart published her findings immediately, it took 25 years for the practice to be banned in the UK.

The problem was not that Dr Stewart was a woman, nor that she was a ‘difficult person’. Indeed, a research project at the Harvard School of health found similar results but still took 26 years to change the practice in the US.

What enabled Dr Stewart to keep fighting for 25 years? In Margaret’s telling of the story, the answer lies in her collaboration with George Kneale, a somewhat ‘nerdy’ and nocturnal statistician. Kneale declared it his job to prove Dr Stewart wrong. If he could not, he declared, it would give Dr Stewart the confidence to keep on fighting. And the outcome was that he couldn’t prove her wrong and she did keep on fighting.

As Margaret explains, the story is a fantastic example of “thinking partners who work not as echo chambers but as challengers of orthodoxy.” Her question to the audience was simple: , “Do you have someone who challenges everything you do because they want you to do your best work?”

How does this translate into how people behave in the workplace? Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin in their seminal 2003 study into organisational science at NYU* asked execs if they had issues and concerns at work that they don’t voice. An incredible 85% said they did. “That’s a lot of silence,” says Margaret. Fear of retribution was a key factor. In a similar study in Europe, the silence was explained by a sense of futility that nothing will change as a result. How many times have we all heard a similar message from employees when they complete the annual survey?

Margaret shares an illustrative story of an executive in medical equipment company who worried that a device they were due to launch was not safe. When he finally raised his concerns, it turned out that everyone else had the same thought.

The challenge we all face, says Margaret, is to create noisier workplaces, where people are not afraid to raise issues because it could lead to conflict. Without conflict, there is no thought and without thought, no progress. She argues that executives need to be trained to initiate conflict in a way that does not frighten others and that organisations must celebrate the people who are prepared to do this.

In today’s volatile economic climate, the problem is even more acute. High levels of executive unemployment and high mortgages lead to “obedient workforces” and that spells trouble ahead for businesses.

Meanwhile, for individuals, who fear the personal consequences of speaking out, Margaret has some sage advice. Save up some “running away money” . You never know when you will need it!

*An exploratory study of employee silence: issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why – Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin



Does your business have a great birth story?

Having a great ‘birth story’ is a powerful engagement tool for customers and employees alike. When I worked at eBay Europe, we always loved to tell the story of how Pierre Omidyar invented the concept of online auction by accident. The first item he advertised for sale was a broken laser pointer and he was amazed that anyone wanted to buy it. Soon, other people were contacting him with goods that they wanted to sell online. Within a year, Omidyar was so overwhelmed with demand that he had to give up the day job to manage it. Stories like this are like gold dust. When you work for a company like eBay, you quickly discover the enthusiasm and passion that customers have for the product. Everywhere you go, you meet people who want to share their own eBay stories with you. It can be a humbling experience.

Last week, I had a similar feeling when I listened to Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s employee number 1, talk about the birth of his latest business. Transfer Wise, a peer to peer fx company, was inspired by his frustration at getting ripped off by banks every time he transferred money from London back to Estonia. Here is an article that I wrote about his story for the PurpleBeach website.

Why not change money with common people like you?

Taavet Hinrikus couldn’t work it out. Every time he transferred money from Sterling into euros, some 3-4% went missing for no good reason. As Taavet explains it, sending money is about as technically complicated as sending an e-mail, so why do banks take such a huge cut?  In airports, you can lose up to 15% of the value of the exchanged. Even when banks advertise zero commission rate, it’s usually only to disguise the fact that they offer a ridiculous exchange rate. He concluded that the whole fx business was simply ‘a racket.’

Then Taavet had an idea. While he needed to transfer Sterling to euros, a friend had to transfer euros to Sterling. So they agreed to put the money in each other’s bank accounts at the published exchange rate without any commissions. With this simple wheeze, the two friends cut out the middle man, saved a bunch of money and a business idea was born.

You’ve heard before of garage businesses? ‘Transfer Wise’ was cooked up in a kitchen. It offers the opportunity to ‘change money with common people like you,’ (a tribute, no doubt, to the classic Pulp song sung by Jarvis Cocker.)

So far, Transfer Wise has transferred £100m and the amount of transfers has doubled in last 4 months. They exchange 8 currencies and soon will be add a further 10-15. All the growth has come from personal recommendation.

The initial charge of £1 per transaction was, according to Taavet, ‘great marketing, but a bad business plan.’ They have since introduced a charging system of £1 on exchanges up to £200 and 0.5% charge on amounts above that. Taavet contrasts the high fees of banks with the Transfer Wise mindset of ‘how little can we charge to build a global business.

According to Taavet, there is a huge potential market for peer2peer fx, with 200M people worldwide who live, work or study abroad. Taavet says, “Our enemy is the banks. Our target is the 99% of people who go to banks and get ripped off everyday.”


The power of mindfulness

Last year, I completed a coaching foundation course with Third Space Coaching, an experience I would recommend to anyone who wants to improve their ability to connect with people, as a communicator, a counsellor or simply as a human being. For me the most profound learning from the course was to experience how powerful it is to be truly listened to by another human being. Whether at work or in our personal lives, attention deficit syndrome has become the new normality for social interaction. Instead of listening to each other with full attention, we are increasingly distracted by our mobile devices, our personal agendas, our increasing disconnection from humanity.

During the course, we practiced mindfulness, the act of ‘being present’ for each other. When we listened to someone’s story, we did so with full concentration and attentiveness, our feet firmly planted on the floor facing the speaker, our vision focused on their non-verbal signals, are minds emptied of all thoughts except those inspired by the  unfolding narrative.

Since the course, I have tried to apply my learning to my working life, not always with success, but in a conscious effort to improve listening as a core communication skill.

I was reminded of my experience while taking part in the PurpleBeach launch experience last week. Listening to Tara Sheahan, co-founder of the Conscious Global Leadership Programme, was an inspirational experience. Here is the text of an article that I wrote for the PurpleBeach website that describes Tara’s story, how a tick bite set her on the path to discover the power of mindfulness:

“Tara Sheahan considered herself to be gifted with good genes. As well as being a wife and mother, she was an high level athlete, runner, and skier. But when at age 35, she contracted Lyme’s disease from a tick bite, she suddenly found herself at risk of losing her whole sense of identity. When she tried to run, every joint of her body screamed. When she tried to cook, the smallest pan was painful to hold.

What didn’t help was Tara’s sense of needing to be perfect. Being sick felt like being broken, useless. She hated asking anyone for help, found it painful to admit she couldn’t do something. Looking back, Tara likens the state to being like a caterpilllar in chrysalis. As Tara describes it, “there’s a stage when it becomes goo, loses all identity, becomes non-identifiable – that’s how I felt.”

Eventually, Tara realised that her negative thoughts were affecting her immune system. She learned that becoming a butterfly was about letting go and asking for help. That meant shedding the concept that her self worth derived from being an athlete. Instead, Tara set herself a new goal – to become great at loving her kids.

The experience of loving and feeling loved was like suddenly feeling free, even though she was still completely exhausted from her illness.

As she began to heal herself with positive thinking, Tara studied the relationship between mind and body. Inspired by John Sarno’s book ‘Mind Body Prescription’, Tara learned that the body has its own ecology; how negative thoughts secrete cortisol and positive thoughts secrete dopamine. She became fascinated with how, even when you are having a great time outdoors in the sunshine, your mind will suddenly ask you, “oh no did I lock the car?”.  She concluded that because the mind wants to keep us safe and so it constantly worries. Yet the effect of that is damaging to our wellbeing.

With these insights, Tara began a new journey to learn how to change her thoughts. On a 21 day ‘silent trek’ in India, she discovered how easy it is to become overcome by worry and self-criticism, constantly comparing oneself to others because we think they are more beautiful, more talented, more intelligent that we are. It’s so easy to always think, “I’m never good enough.”

Tara discovered that through ‘mindfulness’, it is possible to become at ease with ourselves. For example, simply by learning how to control our breathing, we can control feelings of stress and anxiety in our lives. Through daily practice of simple exercises to connect mind and body, we can all cultivate a sense of wellbeing and joy.”

What Benny and Bjorn could teach us all about communication

For a long time I’ve thought that ABBA songs should carry a Government health warning. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the song ‘Mamma Mia’ stuck in my brain, infiltrating every quiet, reflective moment of the day. Recently  I learned that this is a neurological phenomenon known as an ear worm, (from the German Ohrwurm.)  For me it is the words, “Mamma mia, here I go again, My my, how can I resist you?” that always seem to get ‘stuck’, like some nightmare hallucination. Both the gratuitous use of the expression ‘Mamma mia’ (what does that possibly mean – is this person in love with their mother?) and the taunting use of the expression ‘how can I resist you’ seem to get me every time.

I should have known better, but on holiday last week, I agreed in a moment of weakness to watch the film version of ‘Mamma Mia’. By such small acts of self sacrifice, I sometimes attempt to ingratiate myself with my family in the hope that it will make me a better spouse and parent. I even agreed to watch the karaoke version and happily growled along under my breath to the irritatingly familiar tunes. But I was still taken unawares by a new aural invader. This time it was the song, ‘Does your mother know’, sung by the long limbed, Christine Baranski, Donna’s ‘other bandmate’ as she cavorts with a half naked man, half her age. The lyrics “Well I can dance with you honey, If you think it’s funny,” have taken hold and a week later, are proving impossible to shift.

Trying as always to find the positive from such experiences, it has struck me that Abba songwriters Benny and Bjorn could teach a masterclass in how to make communications stick. What is even more incredible is that they were not writing lyrics in their native language and neither could notate music, but relied upon Agnetha and Frida to interpret the melodies. Imagine if we could use some of their combined skills to communicate with our customers and employers?

In ABBA Let The Music Speak, musicologist Christopher Patrick analysed every single phrase of every Abba song, concluding that they were ‘musical economists’ of the highest order, using a simple ‘power of three’ do-re-mi structure to embed the hook lines in the listener’s brains.  Elsewhere, other commentators describe how the catchiness of their songs derives from having up to five of these hook lines, or from the sheer outrageous improbability of their rhymes, or from the number of times that the chorus is repeated, or from the fact that their songs describe simple, memorable stories and familiar human emotions like regret and unrequited love.

Neil McCormick in his hilariously scathing article about his hatred of Abba, described their ‘musical range that goes all the way from A to B and back again.’ But when it comes to communicating ideas, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple. In their book ‘Made to Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and others die”, brothers Chip and Dan Heath described the characteristics of a sticky idea (as popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘The Tipping Point’) with an annoying incomplete acronym SUCCES, which stands for:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

I have to say that the ABBA songwriting team most certainly got their first, even if they discovered the technique by accident. As for what it all means for employee engagement, I have to reflect that there are many times when we could all try harder to emulate the standards of Benny and Bjorn, who by all accounts, worked hard to craft their hits.

While we are fond of asking employees whether they understand the strategy of the business, we are less keen on asking them what they can actually tell us about the strategy without being prompted. Could we try harder to help people attach strategic ideas to the velcro of their memory?  Here’s a good test. Ask yourself how many of your own communications you can remember a year after you’ve written them?  If the answer is less than 5, can I recommend that you spend an hour or two listening to ABBA’s greatest hits for some inspiration?

How to get more aha moments – do the washing up!

Are you someone who struggles to focus on problem solving when there’s a stack of ironing that needs doing, or a lawn that needs mowing?  Relax – the lastest scientific research says that performing simple non-demanding tasks can free up your creative brain and actually help you generate more aha moments.

In the recent documentary ‘The Creative Mind’, BBC Horizon reported on a psychological experiment by Prof John Schooler at Santa Barbara University, California, to explore how we can all become more creative. Based on a simple test of divergent thinking, participants were given two minutes to list as many uses as they could think of for an ordinary house brick. Those who could only manage ‘use it to build a house’ were classed as ‘not very creative’. Those who saw its potential as a paperweight, a weapon, a unit of measurement, an object of art, etc. (you get the idea) were at the higher end of the spectrum.

After the test, the guinea pigs were then invited to do one of three things. The first group took a rest and did absolutely nothing for a few minutes. The next group were asked to sort out a pile of lego bricks according to colour. The final group used the lego bricks to design a model house. Then they all had to perform the divergent thinking test again and think up some more uses for the house brick that they hadn’t previously considered. Who do you think came up with the most new suggestions?

Those who did the worst were the ones who’d been given the most demanding task of modelling a house. The most new ideas, by a significant margin, came from those who’d performed the simple colour sorting task.

This fascinating experiment confirms the popular conception that we get many of our best ideas when we least expect them. So if you want to generate more aha moments, you need to walk away from the problem – literally. Take a walk, go for a swim, have a bath, do the washing up. By tuning your mind to a more creative state, you will create more ‘ahas’ for yourself.

So here’s an interesting test of divergent thinking: how many applications of this finding can you think of to make employees more creative in your workplace?

This blog post first appeared on www.purplebeach.com on my ‘Beach Writing‘ blog

Multi-tasking or just bad manners?

Call me old fashioned but I was taught at school that it was polite, when someone is talking, at least to look as though you’re paying attention. Recently I attended an external breakfast event where I could barely hear the speaker because of the person next to me loudly tapping on her Blackberry. And no, she wasn’t tweeting the speaker’s smart ideas, she was dealing with work e-mail (I confess I had a  crafty peep – lack of data security being one good reason not to e-mail in public).

My neighbour on the other side, meanwhile, was distracting me visually with his astounding ipad dexterity, surely destined to be an Olympic support for the couch surfing generation. He was locked in digital warp drive, hypersurfing profile searches on the speaker, checking out her company website, twitter feed, facebook account. Everything short of actually listening to what she was saying.

I know that our digital economy supposedly makes us all more productive. But really, much of this so-called multi-tasking is simply bad manners. You could call it making a virtue out of attention deficit syndrome. While I recognise that many people now use their tablet devices for note taking, there’s a crucial difference when compared with a traditional  notepad and pencil. Touchpad typing for most people means that you’ve lost eye contact with your speaker. And when that happens, you’re not really listening.

When  I started my career, (not that long ago I hasten to add), going on a business trip often meant being out of contact with the office for days on end. Meanwhile back at the ranch, correspondence stacked up in your office intray. I remember returning to my hotel room at night to find handwritten notes slipped under the door by the hotel concierge, asking me to call my boss in the morning. Seems like a lifetime ago now. But just because we have the ability to  be always contactable does that mean we have to use it?

I believe that digital technology has  damaged our ability to be accountable for how we use our time. No one can criticise you for spending a day taking part in an external meeting, if you use technology to do exactly what you would have done at your home base. How many readers have experienced the craziness of travelling to somewhere in a different timezone, only to find yourself spending half your day in conference calls with your home base and half the night catching up with email? Oh, for the old note under the door from the concierge.

While the principle that no-one is indispensable is as true today as it ever was, some managers try to create a cult of indispensability by being virtually present even when physically absent. Yet how do other members of the team learn how to deputise if the boss is ‘always on’?  In reality, digitally omnipresent bosses disempower their teams.

So do all our digital aids promote increased productivity or do they encourage poor decision making and a fast track to burnout? Only time will tell for the always on generation. My final message for my frenetic friends from the breakfast meeting: ‘stop tapping and listen, you might actually learn something.’

That joke isn’t funny anymore (in fact it never was)

Ricky Gervais knew what he was doing when he created the character of David Brent in The Office as both a manager and a wannabe comedian, not always in that order. Over the years, I’ve worked with many senior managers who felt they had a talent for humour, who saw themselves as being basically ‘a pretty funny kind of guy’. Often this ‘talent’ emerged alongside their professional success. Rather than having been the funny kid in the classroom, (a time when the individual was probably considered slightly earnest and serious), their sense of humour surfaced as they found themselves managing increasingly large teams and needing to address even larger audiences. I use the phrase ‘funny guy’ advisedly, because these senior managers with comedic ambitions are usually men. By contrast, I’ve met very few female senior managers who wanted to be thought of as ‘funny’. In my experience, women tend to be wary of anything that prevents them from being taken seriously.

The sad fact of course is that funny senior managers are rarely very funny. But who will tell them? As the meeting rooms and conference venues echo with the sound of obsequious laughter, who is brave enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes? That his punchlines have no punch, that his gags make us gag? Easier just to laugh along with a big, shit-eating smile on your face.

So why do so many male senior managers want to be funny?  Does it stem from a desire to be popular, which in turn perhaps derives from a basic insecurity?  Does it relate to the same inner compulsions that drive certain people to the top of their organisations, while other (less funny) people are happy to stay in the audience?  I’m not qualified to judge on these matters, but I hope that some readers with a background in psychology will possibly feel inspired to offer their opinions in the comments section below!

As a communications consultant, my standard advice to any leader who wants to tell jokes is to avoid the urge. Simply, there is no upside. If people laugh at your jokes, it’s because of who you are, rather than the intrinsic value of your material. If they fail to laugh, it will throw you off balance and you may struggle to regain it. So many times, I’ve seen leaders panic when their audience misses a laughter cue, to the detriment of their communication. Instead of focusing on the key messages they need to land, they start to chase the laughs with increasing desperation. I cringe just thinking about it.

What’s the solution for a leader who wants to engage with his employees? It’s simple. Leave comedy to the professional comedians and focus on being yourself. You don’t need people to think you are funny, but you do want people to see that you are a real human being who can demonstrate human warmth. Tell stories that provide insights into why you think the way you do. Chances are they will like you for it and even if they don’t, they will appreciate your honesty. If people are moved to laughter, it is far more likely to be genuine.

As a postscript to this article, I remember a senior leader who thought of himself as a pretty funny kind of guy, whose team would laugh along uproariously at his sparkling wit. Then he lost his job and suddenly he wasn’t funny anymore. I can remember wondering what hit him hardest – no longer being top dog or having no one to laugh at his jokes? Sadly, I lost touch, so I never got to find out whether he rediscovered his comedic talent when he found a new job and a new audience elsewhere!

When employee retention becomes employee detention

When you interpret your company’s employee survey data, which social demographic do you normally find has the strongest correlation with employee engagement? In my experience, the strongest correlation tends to be length of service. Unfortunately, it’s usually a negative relationship. That’s right – often the longer employees have worked for your company, the more likely they are to feel disengaged. Why should that be?

No-one is surprised to discover that recent joiners are the most enthusiastic and tend to remain highly engaged at least for their first 2-3 years of employment. You’d expect that to be the case and if the reverse was true, you’d want to take a serious look at your recruitment policy and induction, as well as the competence of your managers. But once employees get to around 6-8 years+ service, disillusionment starts to set in.

By the time employees get to 10+years experience, your sample tends to polarise radically. At one extreme, you have the minority who’ve made it to the top of the pyramid. Such employees should be highly engaged, although as we know, senior managers can be your toughest internal customers due to their very high expectations. At the other end of the spectrum are long serving employees who haven’t made it to the top, but unlike those who exited the business when passed over for promotion, these are the ones who decided to stay put for whatever reason.

Of course, not everyone wants to rise to the top of their organisation, which is just as well; the simple laws of geometry dictate that in career terms, most people stay nearer the base of the pyramid. Employers have to find other means to recognise the contribution that loyal employees make to the success of the organisation beyond promotion and salary increase. That’s where it gets hard. There are only so many sideways moves that employees will accept before frustration sets in. Another solution is to give employees ‘specialist practitioner’ status, in recognition of their depth of experience. But in reality, there are few roles where ten year’s experience is twice as valuable as five year’s experience. All too often, ten year’s experience amounts to one year’s experience repeated ten times.

It gets more difficult when length of service means that the employee benefits cease to be golden handcuffs and instead become a ball and chain. Many long serving employees can not hope to match their benefits in terms of pension (especially, in this day and age, if they are lucky enough to have a final salary pension) and accumulated holidays, even if they could match their salary and bonus elsewhere. Employee retention can easily become employee detention. In this situation, employees can only wait for retirement or redundancy, whichever comes first.

Having many employees in your organisation who are in this situation inevitably has a depressing effect on morale. It’s a scenario familiar to anyone who has tried to create an engagement culture in public sector organisations or former nationalised industries. In reality, no-one likes to feel trapped, but the logic of employee benefits that increase with service means that most employers perpetuate this cycle.

Perversely, when it comes to restructuring, organisations are often reluctant to make long serving employees redundant due to the high cost involved. Instead they will tend to offer voluntary redundancy to recent joiners, which in the long run is always a false economy. (A successful restructuring has to follow the logic of best person for the job, regardless of length of service.)

Is there an alternative to this gloomy scenario? Well of course there is. Leaders who truly ‘get’ employee engagement make all their employees feel valued and continually re-energised, including those who have been with the company the longest. They achieve that by making people feel valued and keeping them in touch with whatever it is that makes them get out of bed in the morning. Organisations who build such leaders are rewarded with employees who love their jobs, who look forward to being with their teammates and who never want to retire. By achieving the right balance of ‘give and get’, employers can reverse the tendency for long serving employees to become disengaged. The nirvana state is to have long serving employees who see it as a privilege to have a job they enjoy that also fits in with their life. In short, a long term employee retention strategy must focus on intrinsic benefits, because financial benefits alone are more likely to result in employee detention.

Adapting to flexible working

How well does your organisation manage flexible working? Does your strategy drive engagement by allowing employees to define their own work life balance? Or is it perceived as a sneaky way to cut costs while extending the effective working day to include all waking hours?

This week I took part in a workshop at Comma Partners on how virtual working and globalisation of business affects employee engagement. Michelle Pattison presented an absorbing case study about Unilever’s agile working strategy.

The Unilever approach aims to maximise flexibility and minimise constraints for the business by aligning the three key enablers of technology, workplaces and working practices. When it works, the benefits are diverse and transformational. As well as achieving cost savings on property, travel, and associated environmental benefits, agile working boosts capability by enabling global, virtual teams to collaborate effectively and increases resilience against business continuity risks. Agile working also promotes diversity, by enabling people to choose how they manage their work life balance and can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool – as demonstrated in this Unilever careers video.

During the discussion, a number of themes emerged for how to engage employees positively about adopting flexible work practices. Everyone agreed that getting leaders to ‘walk the talk’ is fundamental. It’s difficult to get employees to hot desk if their leaders retreat into private offices. Similarly, travel bans provoke resentment when leaders still choose to globe trot in the company jet.

Another major concern was how companies protect their employees from burnout. Hardworking, ambitious employees in highly competitive, global companies can easily find themselves working 12 hour days over an 18 hour window. Managers must be alert to their team members work patterns to guard against creeping workaholism.

For a communicator, flexible working has its own particular challenges. How can you engage people face to face when they rarely come into the office? This is a subject close to my own heart, having pioneered the use of video-conference technology as an engagement tool at eBay Europe with the innovative and award winning European Team Brief. In the same way that Saturday night TV has staged a comeback in the UK against an industry trend towards ‘on demand’ viewing, so communicators must stage ‘you just gotta be there’ experiences to bring employees together. It’s all about creating a buzz so that employees feel they’re missing out if they don’t get the live experience.

As a final point, I believe that virtual working is great for established teams, but you also need to consider how to build new teams and onboard new members. Working as a contractor, I rely upon being able to rapidly establish my internal network in order to become effective. Achieving that in an environment where people rarely visit the office becomes a big challenge. If you don’t thinks that’s a problem in your organisation, ask yourself when you last went into the office solely for an induction meeting with a recent joiner?

When the music stops…

Two young people barged past me to get on the train this morning. Result? I was the one person who didn’t get a seat on my carriage. As I stood fuming on the increasingly crowded train into London, I reflected on how the games we play as children prepare us for life. Musical chairs was the example that sprung instantly to mind. As a child, I never understood its appeal. Even then it seemed a dull game, prone to all kinds of despicable, cheating behaviour. Since becoming a parent, I’ve experienced it from the other side, when it’s been my finger on the mute button. At my kids’ birthday parties, it somehow fell to me to supervise the games before the little playmates went home. This was usually after the conjurer had packed away his wand, leaving a room full of hyperactive kids overdosing on sugar and e-additives, while the Mums drank wine in the kitchen and laughed at my incompetence. Happy days.

The kids I wanted to win the game were always the first to be eliminated. They’d be the ones who got so into the zone with their zany dancing that when the music stopped, they didn’t know what planet they were on. Finding a chair to sit on was the last thing on their mind. Maybe I could keep them in the game for a while with a well intentioned ‘OK kids, that was just a practice round’.  But after the third practice round, you couldn’t protect them any longer, the crazy kid had to go. The ones I always had it in for were those who made no real attempt to dance. Instead they would jiggle around a bit, hopping from one leg to the other while hovering no more than six inches from their target chair, their beady gaze locked like a laser beam on my trigger finger.  I found the only way to deal with such kids was to distract them by calling out their name or throwing them a sweet, just as I stopped the music. Then there were the kids who refused to accept they were out of the game. Who kept popping up again and causing mayhem because all of a sudden there’s two kids without a chair. The outcome of  all this?  One kid clutching a prize feeling mighty pleased with themselves, a handful of other kids protesting about perceived (or actual) unfairness and the rest busy destroying the house.

The time when musical chairs comes into its own as a metaphor is during organisational change. The kids I describe above all have their grown up equivalents. The likeable oddball who is so away with the fairies that he hasn’t a hope of ending up with a role and you wonder how he will ever survive in the big world. Or the born survivor who is  so determined to keep hold of their seat that anyone who even looks at it risks having their eyes gouged out. Then there’s ‘everyone else’.

In my experience, the one essential element for communicating organisational change successfully is to create a completely fair and open process. If people get the slightest sense that the process is not fair, it can do lasting damage to an organisation that only a future change of leadership can fully repair. Being transparent means exactly that. As I heard the global HR Director of a major corporate say recently, the thing about opening the curtain is that you have to be pretty sure you know what’s behind it first. So in the example of my dismal attempt at organising a party game, it would be no good telling little Johnny that he didn’t sit down on the chair first, when the real reason was that I was  teaching him a lesson for being so greedy and that it was someone else’s turn to win for a change.

The interesting thing about this little story is that if I hadn’t been deprived of my seat today by pushy commuters, I wouldn’t have thought about any of this. Which proves the other rule of change management, that from personal adversity springs fresh insight and opportunity!

My journey to work courtesy of South West Trains