Consultants on Balconies Getting Comfy

Netflix recently released Season 10 of Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. If you haven’t seen the show, its title is its premise. The episodes run for about 15 minutes. At the beginning of each episode, Jerry picks up his guest in an exotic car meant to capture the spirit of the featured comedian. Jerry and his guest drive around, grab a cup of coffee, sometimes eat a meal, sometimes run an errand all the while chatting about whatever interests Jerry. Often, what interests Jerry most is philosophizing about stand-up comedy.

In the first episode of the current season, Jerry’s guest is Zach Galifianakis. After picking up Zach in a Volkswagen Thing (fun, inventive, unique, irreverent… like Galifianakis, get the idea?), the comedians end up getting their requisite coffee in a donut shop. Zach becomes nostalgic about his pre-fame days when he could spend uninterrupted time observing people in nondescript places. He explains that after the success of the Hangover movies, he feels that he lost the ability to simply hangout in ordinary places and observe. He recalls wistfully, “I got to sit and watch people… and that’s where I got everything.”

After watching Jerry and his guests discuss how comics get inspired, one gets the impression that stand-up comics split their attention as they go about their lives. The comic blends in with the rest of us Earthlings attending to the activities of daily living while simultaneously watching life from some detached, alien perspective.

For example, as Jerry and Zach are driving past a couple of elderly gentlemen greeting each other on the street, Jerry observes, “There’s two old friends. See that hug? Those guys have known each other a long time. They’ve eaten the exact same food. That’s why they’re the exact same weight.”

Facilitators and organizational development consultants also exploit the power of the detached perspective. For leaders, a detached perspective is more difficult, but no less important. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their 2002 book, Leadership on the Line compare leading to dancing, ask leaders to imagine the difference between the experience of being on a dance floor and being on a balcony overlooking the dance floor:

Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. (p. 53)

Consultants often provide leaders with a balcony perspective because the consultant is less attached to the specific ideas and opinions surrounding a challenging organizational situation. A consultant acting as a meeting facilitator on behalf of a leader can focus on the process of the meeting and the way participants interact to ensure the meeting leader gets full advantage of convening stakeholders with diverse points-of-view.

Of course, just as leaders can get stuck on the dance floor and miss the big picture, consultants can get stuck on the balcony. Too much time on the balcony and helpful insights can become unproductive criticisms. Consultants who get comfortable on the balcony risk becoming like the “cold and timid souls” in Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech who, “…know neither victory nor defeat.”

When Dennis Rebelo and I were students at Saybrook University working on our doctorates we developed a reputation as captious bystanders during our program’s residential conferences. At some point we started referring to ourselves as Statler and Waldorf, the cranky, wisecracking hecklers that would sit in the balcony during The Muppet Show and amuse themselves with insulting comments about whatever was happening on stage. We were never sure which of us was Statler and which was Waldorf, but we embraced the nicknames and the personas.

To be fair, Dennis gets antsy if he spends too much time on the balcony. He is a busy guy with a string of accomplishments. Check out his latest project called StoryPathing™ designed in part, to help people during transitions develop their identity through the power of narrative. I, on the other hand, get very comfortable on the balcony. Sometimes, when I facilitate meetings, the dynamics playing out in front of me can distract me from intervening and redirecting the discussion.

The view from the balcony can help a team get unstuck.

If you don’t have access to a consultant or facilitator… or a stand-up comic, you can still benefit from a detached perspective. In every group and during every meeting someone at some point in a process or discussion is paying more attention to how things are going (balcony) than to the work at hand (dance floor). Moreover, the person most likely to have a useful opinion about how things are going may be the one who seems disengaged or even anxious about participating.

If you have created an environment in which people feel safe expressing their thoughts and feelings, you can simply pause the meeting or process and ask people for feedback. If not, follow the example of Jerry Seinfeld and take a coffee break. Simply stop the action for five or ten minutes and talk to someone whose opinion you respect and who has not had much to say. When attempting to learn from someone who has been on the balcony, don’t ask, “What should we do?” Instead, ask, “What are you seeing?”

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