TeamBuild January 2017: Go to the balcony

A decade ago, twenty-five leaders from Delaware assembled for a full day to work on a blueprint for education for the state. A renowned international consulting firm presented research on education around the world. As the consultants worked their way through 197 slides, our firm took a “pulse check” just after noon. To get a sense of the group, we asked each person to use one word to describe how they were feeling. What we heard surprised everyone — “bored, confused, irritated, disengaged”. To his credit, the senior partner of the large consulting company weighed in. “I guess we’ll have to recalibrate,” he said with chagrin.

That “pulse check” is an example of using the concept of how to “go to the balcony” with teams. In Leadership on the Line, Linsky and Heifetz (who I worked with at Cambridge Leadership Associates) talk about how to get perspective in the midst of action by stepping back – metaphorically – to get a sense of the whole.

The example they use is that you are at a dance but leave the dance floor to go to the balcony. From that vantage point you see that where you were dancing next to the band, there is a small, tightly packed, and energized crowd – but in the rest of the room there are groups of people quietly sipping their drinks and talking. There is a long line for the buffet. There are even more people on the lawn outside, drinking, talking, and walking. Your description of the dance might be different from the balcony than from the dance floor near the band.

I use this concept when I am a participant in a group – I try to understand what is happening in the room from the vantage point of the “balcony”.   Stepping away from the heat of a meeting or interaction often presents new data and shifts perceptions and sometimes the work that needs to be done. In addition, I have tools to help entire teams “go to the balcony”.

The tools I use range from the pulse check we took in Delaware that day to conducting a one-hour individual interview with each member of a team before an initial meeting and presenting a summary to the group when we meet. A simpler version of interviews can be accomplished with an online poll (Google poll, SurveyMonkey, etc.). I also use flip charts to take a team to the balcony. I have each person write their idea on a flip chart and we discuss in full view. Sometimes I use “visual voting” — everyone has three red dots and goes up to the flip charts and “votes” for their top three ideas.

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