The Balcony View

When I work with congregations in our “Grace, Generosity and Gratitude” stewardship program, I’m often asked these questions:  How do we move forward? How do we grow ministry? What do we have to continue to do? What do we have to stop doing?  What should we add?

In our churches we often talk about what’s broken – what needs to be fixed. Then, if there’s time left over, we continue to do what we’re good at and what we do well. And what happens? You guessed it. Nothing changes.

A recent book entitled “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership”, written by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, offers interesting insights into organizational assessment and leadership challenges. The authors advise us to look at the organization (whether a business, church or non-profit) from different perspectives: the balcony and the dance floor.  What do we see from either position?

The authors use the metaphor “on the balcony” to depict what it means to gain the distance perspective you need to see what is really happening. If you stay moving on the dance floor, all you will see will be the people dancing with you and around you.  When you get on the balcony, you may see a different picture.

To follow that analogy,  think about being on the dance floor. You are swept up in the music and it seems to be a great party.

Now move up to the balcony. Is it a great party? You might notice the band is playing so loudly that everyone is dancing on the far side of the room, that when the music changes from fast to slow, different groups of people decide to dance, and that some people hang back near the exit and do not dance, whatever the music. Some are leaving.  Not such a great party after all.

At a recent gathering of pastors from the Northern and Southern Provinces, we used this exercise to illustrate the methodology.

Think of the balcony and dance floor at your church.

  • What can you see from the balcony?
  • What can you see from the dance floor?
  • What might you miss from the dance floor?
  • What might you miss from the balcony?

Now the question:  How do you decide when to be on the balcony and when to be on the dance floor? You become adaptive – you move back and forth – you observe – you identify.

“Adaptive” leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges.

The balcony view helps us to name the problem.  If it’s technical, once identified it’s pretty easy to change or fix. If it’s adaptive, it requires people to change their minds, hearts, and practices.

From our balcony view, we can collect data and identify the problem.  We have to get on the balcony and observe what is happening on the dance floor. It becomes easier to gain perspective and not personalize the challenge or problem.

Most of us think people resist change. But is that really true? People love change when they know it is a good thing. What people resist is loss. When change involves real or potential loss, we hold on to what we have and resist the change.

So how do we shift between the dance floor and the balcony? Consider these three steps:

  1. Allow yourself time each day to step outside the daily activities. There is always the opportunity to stop and reflect before acting.
  2. Take a few moments at the end of each day to determine how your time was split between the two.
  3. Recognize big picture patterns through conversations with others above you and outside of your area.  Listen to the energy behind the words. 

On the balcony, we gain perspective; on the dance floor, the work takes place.