Thursday, June 22, 2006

Watching the Dance from the Balcony

“I don’t have enough time to think” is a common lament of many managers. The day-to-day realities intrude. It’s hard enough to stay on top of the “urgent-urgent” priorities let alone reflect. This is stressful because we know that sitting back and taking stock of what’s going on must be done to guide day-to-day decisions. In fact, our complex, interdependent working environments demand that we use our critical thinking hats more to tackle the messy issues that confront us.

But how can we rise above the fray? A thinking tool such a “watching the dance from the balcony” can help.

The emerging view of leadership is that it is less about power and persuasion and personality and more related to guiding a group to make progress on issues without known solutions. This requires a “birds eye” view of the “social system” that is at work: competing assumptions, values, attitudes, behaviours, knowledge about reality and interdependencies that help or hinder moving forward.

One way for a leader-manager to “get a grip” on this is by going to the balcony every once in a while to view the situation as a whole. Sample questions to ask include:
What’s going on here?
What patterns am I seeing?
What assumptions might not be right?
Who is influencing whom?
What further digging do we need to do to get at the “truth” of the reality we face?
How are we managing the emotional environment (the key resistance to change)?

Better still, ask the group the same questions. It will help everyone develop a higher order of wisdom bringing each person’s attention and focus to the issues and interactions that matter.

This going back and forth between the balcony and the dance floor, as Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University explains, is THE single most important tool for leaders anywhere to master. It is an invitation for people to get “out of their minds” to “think about their thinking”.

In our busy working lives, this does not take much time. It is no different than building in more exercise to our days to have more energy and alertness each moment.