Getting out on the balcony
In any organization, your chances of success depend on your ability to observe and synthesize a complex set of often conflicting signs and data. You must be attuned to cues about what is most important, what is at stake for the organization, who will support you, and who will block you.
One effective strategy that will help you make sense of these undercurrents is to periodically step back from the action. Picture this as leaving the “dance floor” where the action is and “getting on the balcony,” so that you can observe the action. This is not as easy as it sounds: there’s lots of pressure to remain on the dance floor. E-mail, instant messages, meetings, and cell phones all place you where the action is. When you go to the balcony, you define a metaphorical space where you can observe patterns and create many interpretations of your own behavior and those within the larger system.
Getting on the balcony helps you gain perspective in the midst of action. You can examine the dynamics, identify and interpret trends, and reach a deeper understanding of the current situation. While on the balcony, you develop two complementary skills: you notice nuances in people’s language and behavior and you find ways to interpret the data you collect. Developing the ability to maintain multiple perspectives and remain curious helps you determine the actions that will connect you to the experience of others and help the organization progress. You’ll be able to tune in to the currents and perspectives within the broader organization.
You need not physically leave a meeting or the office to get out on the balcony. In sports, successful athletes can be in the game and at the same time recognize the larger patterns of play. The next time you are in a meeting, experiment with shifting your seat subtly and make a conscious effort to notice what is going on. Identify who is doing most of the talking, who has been silent, what the senior authority figure is doing. Ask yourself, “What is actually going on here?” Consider several possibilities about how the current situation reflects the concerns, values, and perspectives in the broader system.
Share this strategy with the members of your team. Encourage them to occasionally “get on the balcony” to observe patterns of conversation and action. This practice raises everyone’s awareness of how they can work together most effectively.
Getting back out on the dance floor
Holding a range of perspectives is necessary but not sufficient. To be effective, you need to test your interpretations with others. That means getting back out on the “dance floor” and using what you’ve observed out on the balcony. Talk to people at all levels, not just managers and executives. Once you’ve tested your interpretation with others and gotten their feedback, you will find out if you’ve uncovered the most important themes for your organization. If you’re right the first time, great…if not, you’ll need to go back to the balcony again, come up with new interpretations, and test them on the dance floor.
While most businesspeople bow to the pressure to keep on dancing as fast as they can, savvy managers understand the value of spending a bit of time away from the action, gaining the perspective and insight that a short break out on the balcony can bring.