It was a morning rush hour just like any other in the Washington DC subway station. Commuters rushed through the tunnel with their Starbucks coffee in one hand and their newspaper under their other arm. A man sat on a chair with a violin and played to the crowd, hoping they would stop for a few minutes and possibly throw some change into his cardboard box. During his 45-minute session, he played six different Bach compositions and approximately 1,100 people passed him by.
In the first three minutes, a middle-aged man slowed for a moment and then hurried by. A few minutes later, the violinist received his first tip – a woman threw a dollar in the box without slowing or even looking directly at him. Several minutes later, a man stopped, leaned against the wall to listen and then looked at his watch and moved on. The spectator who gave the violinist the most attention, was a 3-year old boy. His mother, clearly annoyed, tugged the child along.
The 1,097 people who passed through the L’Enfant Plaza Station on January 12, 2007 had no idea that they were being treated to a free concert by the world-renowned violin virtuoso Joshua Bell. He performed six classical pieces on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which he paid $3.5 million). During his 45-minute mini-concert, he collected a total of $32.17. Three days earlier, he played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where seats sold for $100.
What can we conclude from this experiment? Can we conclude that people were too busy to stop and enjoy the beauty right in front of them? Can we conclude that people chose to ignore the performance because this was simply a “subway performer”, and therefore, not an artist of any significant talent? Can we conclude that the “herd mentality” kept people from stepping out of line to stop and listen?
How can this lesson be applied to business cultures? In each company, there are preconceived notions that certain people have more value than others. Executives will dominate meetings. Middle management will be ignored. Low-level employees may not even be invited to the conversation. Over time, the senior executives and dominant personalities stifle the others in the company. Many employees eventually give up offering suggestions and simply keep their mouths shut.
It goes without saying, but some of the greatest suggestions come from the mid-level and entry-level employees because they live-and-breathe the day-to-day operations of the company. They know the challenges and have thought through the solutions. We have all been in meetings where the C-level executive goes on, and on, about some meaningless issue and simply reinforces that he is a “stuffed-suit”.
We need to challenge ourselves to not be blinded by title, personality, or role within a company. Don’t always assume that your senior executives have the best ideas. For that matter, don’t always assume that your largest customers have the best suggestions. The beauty of social media is that it is blind. Whether you are communicating with your employees, investors, partners or customers, each group and each participant has an equal voice. As an example, anyone – from any company, any position or any country – can participate in this blog on a level field. Everyone has an equal voice and an equal opportunity to participate and learn from each other. Social media knows no caste system. There are many examples of companies who have used internal and external online communities to create environments of productivity and innovation that would never have occurred in traditional business cultures.
Action Item: Create social media environments where you can listen carefully and identify the “violin virtuosos” that are currently being ignored within your company and/or within your customer base.
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