The view from the balcony

How we use our away day to embed a culture of learning in the Foundation

24th August 2018

Every summer the Pears team gathers for our annual staff away day. It’s much more than an opportunity for us to get together and eat cake (although this does form a key part of the agenda) as it provides a chance for us to reflect, share learning across the team and develop new knowledge and skills.  I thought I’d share some more information about what we did this year.

Using Ron Heifetz’s metaphor of the dance floor and the balcony*, we always use the first part of the day to pause and reflect, both individually and collectively, on the year that’s just passed. We share key milestones, look for themes and patterns and try to pull out learning that can help us gain perspective on the Foundation’s development, understand each other’s work and find commonalities across our diverse grant programmes. This is particularly important given that our team works across three different locations and it would be easy for us to miss the less obvious connections between the various grants and issues that we are working on.

We like to use theoretical frameworks to understand ourselves and our work.  In the past we have used Polarity Management, the Myers Briggs type Indicator and Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, all of which we now offer to Pears partners through our operating programme JHub. These are commonly used in the private sector and for leadership development but they have huge benefits for the third sector too. This year we focused on Belbin team role theory which looks at how individuals behave within teams.

We have recently started offering Belbin workshops to grantees and I wanted to make sure we as a team understood the model. At the same time I hoped it would be a useful way for us to think about our individual and collective strengths and any gaps on the team. It provided us with an interesting perspective on the different roles we play with each other, our trustees and our partners and also provided a useful way to think about and plan for my upcoming maternity leave.

On the second day we all participated in a workshop on safeguarding led by an external facilitator from the NSPCC, in which we learned more about the legal context for safeguarding in the UK and considered the implications for us as a Foundation and for our partners.

The away day is an essential part of the Foundation’s approach to learning. It enables us  to come together as a team and share and embed learning, add new tools to our toolbox or practise using existing ones and share the insights that we get from working with such a diverse and inspiring range of partners.


*The dance floor and the balcony

Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom with a balcony up above. A band plays and people swirl all around you to the music, filling up your view. Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure that you don’t collide with dancers close by. You let yourself get carried away by the music, your partner, and the moment. When someone later asks you about the dance, you exclaim, “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.”

But if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. For example, you might have observed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. Indeed, the dancers all clustered at one end of the floor, as far away from the band as possible. On returning home, you might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music.

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. Otherwise, you are likely to misperceive the situation and make the wrong diagnosis, leading you to misguided decisions about whether and how to intervene.

If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor… The challenge is to move back and forth between the dance floor and the balcony, making interventions, observing their impact in real time, and then returning to the action.

Adapted from Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky