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

Engaging employees through social media – an idea whose time has come

Attending an event this evening hosted by Crelos, the organisational change consultancy, I was persuaded that social media has finally emerged as a major tool for employee engagement. Entitled ‘Into the Ether? Harnessing Social Media to Engage in Change’, the event launched a research report by Crelos consultant Alana Inness. I highly recommend having a read – it’s packed with useful insights about how enlightened companies are using social media tools right now.

Over the years, I’ve encountered several failed attempts to engage employees through social media. One that stays in the mind was an early attempt to introduce facebook like software to a bemused internal audience. Although the site was beautifully designed and attracted hundreds of sign-ups when launched,  a year later it was as dead as the proverbial dodo. People could simply not see the point of it, in spite of the majority of people being enthusiastic facebook fans outside of work. Similarly, I recall a highly charismatic leader whose enthusiasm for yammer introduced a new era of direct communication with his team, while his somewhat obsolescent internal communication manager watched from the sidelines. But when the leader left, the company’s flirtation with yammer ended. In both examples, it was a case of the right idea at the wrong time.

Yet it is as a collaboration tool that social media is now truly coming into its own, enabling organisations to harness the collective power of their people to solve problems. And if one of the essential principles of innovation is learning how to fail fast, social media has an important role to play. A memorable quote from the event was that there is ‘something very powerful about having a rubbish idea rubbished’ by your peers.

A reassuring message is that there are no real social media experts yet, because the technology is still too young. Everyone is still learning. The best way to start is to begin. If you don’t yet know what social media can do for you, then sign up and give it a try. That advice applies to organisations as well as to individuals. If you are one of those leaders whose idea of being on LinkedIn is to hand your PA all the business cards you collect, then now is the time to have a go yourself and see what it can do for you.