Oh! That’s me!

The power of the balcony view


It’s amazing how we humans can latch on to a story or a point of view. We feel we’re up against something, and we can keep pushing at it for months or years without stepping back to reframe. 

This is a story about how a modeling activity helped somebody with that. 

My partner Hanna du Plessis and I held a workshop with a bunch of design leaders and executives. Thanks to the Institute of Design for that. We gathered to see if a “complexity lens” might help them manage in difficult situations. 

So now Margaret is looking down at the model she’s just made, and I’m standing beside her. We had asked everyone to imagine their work situation, the people involved, the results, the people who use those results, the effects on other people, and so on—an exercise in carrying her perspective “up into the balcony to look down” and see broadly.  Then for the last ten minutes she’s used clay and paper, yarn and wire, tacks and toothpicks, pipe cleaners and googly eyes to model her situation. 

“Tell me the story of your model,” I say. 

She tells how three pyramids of clay represent three established groups in her company. They are circled in yarn because they have a warm and generous culture. They are circled in copper wire because they have great communication. 

“What’s this other pyramid over here?” I ask. 

“That’s a new group,” Margaret told me. “They’ve only been around for a year, and you can see that they aren’t in the circle of yarn and wire. For some reason they aren’t really included in the other group’s culture.” 

“Why is the base of that lonely pyramid circled with thumb tacks?” She had embedded thumb tacks all around the base, with the sharp points sticking out. 

Margaret hesitated. “Well. That group can be a little prickly.” 

Then it was time to prompt for the next step in the exercise. I asked, “How might you transform this model so it represents a more desirable situation?” 

Margaret looked at the model for a long moment. And then she gasped. “Oh! I run that group! What if I just take out the spikes?” 

Five minutes later Margaret’s group was inside the circle of yarn and copper wire, free of sharp tacks. We had a good conversation about what it could look like to actually live into the transformation she had modeled. 

That moment was transformative. It helped her see in a way she couldn’t previously see. When she came to the workshop, Margaret brought a story of rejection, of her group being full of promise but unseen and unappreciated by others. The moment of that gasp was a moment of realizing that she was a participant in that story, and had power to shift the thing she had been complaining about. In that moment she let go of the old story. And once she did, it took just five minutes for a new one to arrive. 

My guess is, she still looks back on that moment as a turning point.

ContextLeadership workshop: theory and practice of complexity Group size15Duration3 daysOutcomeUnderstanding key concepts in complexity, practice in management and leadership skillsCollaboratorsHanna du Plessis