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!