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Reflection: Change and the Balcony

| January 10, 2012

by Jim Bruce

Today’s reading is a reflection on “Change and the Balcony.”  Drew MacGregor, Coordinator of Educational MDA Technology, College of Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sent this reflection to his IT Leaders Program cohort in mid-December 2011.  

Several points caught my eye in Drew’s essay:

•  Real change occurs when we buy into and experience a paradigm change, a major alteration of how we think or act.

•  Getting on the balcony can be very difficult.  He notes that some individuals have never been challenged to consider concepts beyond the operational.

•  Paradigm paralysis:  The inability or refusal to get beyond the current models of thinking.

•  As leaders we need to identify the moments of paralysis and prevent them from taking hold.

All very good points and there’s more in the piece which I’ve included below.

Do read the entire piece and take sometime this week to reflect on your change signature (see reference below) and make the adjustments you find necessary.


.  .  .  .    jim


NOTE:  For more information on change signatures, see the discussion in Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty at <>



Paradigm: used to describe distinct concepts, an example serving as a model or pattern

Greetings ITLP colleagues,

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Heifetz and Laurie article, “The Work of Leadership” and their concept of getting up on the balcony. Whether you call it the balcony, the ledge, or the 10,000 foot view, the visual is the same to anyone that has spent time trying to see where they are going. You can see farther, more of the terrain from higher up. I love getting up high to see how far I can see in the distance, no small feat for a boy from Illinois.

In our session discussions we reference this article often in terms of the balcony concept. But there is more to this article, the authors use the word “change” or “changes” 45 times in 12 pages of text. By getting elevation we can see what needs to change, but we also must consider how others view the changes.

For the past two years I have been a part of the creation of a new IT support organization for the College of Engineering. We’ve merged units that were autonomous and had their own way of thinking and acting. It’s been positive at times, and at other times I felt we accomplished more in my college fraternity meetings. I have summarized the process this way, “Yes, we need to change how we support the user. You need to change, and you need to change. My stuff works and should stay the same.”

A year ago the managers of our group took part in several sessions about leading others through change. Two things stuck with me: (1) In a period of change we are all on a continuum. Some have bought in, some have dug in their heels to resist, and others are in the middle, the “neutral zone” unsure of what will happen. (2) Real change occurs when we buy into and experience a paradigm shift, a major alteration of how we think or act.

I’ll be honest, I don’t think highly of the word paradigm. It’s a lot like the word “synergy”, it’s become such a buzz word that it’s easy to tune out. So I use the word paradigm sparingly, and when I do I am deliberate about it.

The synergy (see what I did there?) between my change management sessions of 2010 and our current ITLP efforts has become clear to me this fall as I’ve attempted to lead a working group to imagine how multimedia might look at Illinois in the future. Everyone in the group agrees change must occur, but opinions differ on the scale. Some of these really great colleagues can’t see past the operational problems. They can’t get on the balcony.

I don’t think it’s a fear of heights, or a lack of vision. I think they’ve never been challenged to consider concepts beyond the operational. This is a leadership lesson for all of us. Are we encouraging others to think more broadly? How might we position employees to see beyond the moment?

When my working group began a vision process I posted these definitions:

·     Paradigm shift: representing the notion of a major change in a certain thought-pattern — a radical change in personal beliefs, complex systems or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing

·     Paradigm paralysis: the inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking

·     Pair ‘a dimes: 20 cents in change

I know all of us can likely point to more examples of paradigm paralysis than a true paradigm shift. But as leaders we need to identify the moments of paralysis and prevent them from taking hold. The last bullet point, well, beyond the bad pun it points to how others may feel when a leader talks about new systems and paradigms. They are only thinking of change.

So get up on the balcony, the hot air balloon, or satellite and see the big picture. But don’t forget that change is hard for some people, they may resist it because they see a threat to them personally or professionally. Convincing others to get on board with new paradigms, to get out of the “neutral zone” and come along for the ride is as important as the planning. Leadership should probably come with a warning label, but that’s a discussion for another time.