WEEK 5: The Dance Floor and the Balcony

Should I watch the dance from above or get on the floor and dance myself?

Peter Weeks from Philips came this week to talk through qualitative research and qualitative data synthesis. One of the metaphors he shared was of the view from the balcony and the view from the dance floor. I tried to scour the Internet to find out the origin of that metaphor, and to the best of my ability, I’ve determined that the author was Ronald A. Heifetz:

Get off the dance floor and onto the balcony. Leadership is improvisational. It cannot be scripted. On one hand, to be effective a leader must respond in the moment to what is happening. On the other hand the leader must be able to step back out of the moment and assess what is happening from a wider perspective. We call it getting off the dance floor and onto the balcony. It may be an original metaphor, but it’s not an original idea. For centuries religious traditions have taught disciplines that enable a person to reflect in action. Jesuits call it contemplation in action. Hindus call it Karma Yoga, the yoga of action. We call it getting onto the balcony because that’s a metaphor people can easily relate to. But it’s critically important, and the reason why religious traditions have talked about it for so long is that it’s hard to do. You don’t need a major spiritual practice for something that’s easy to do. It’s hard, in the midst of action, to step back and ask yourself: What’s really going on here? Who are the key parties to this problem? What are the stakes they bring to this issue? How will progress require us all to reevaluate our stakes and change some of our ways?

This was clearly written for leaders and not for researchers. If this was written for a researcher or an ethnographer, it might encourage getting on the dance floor, to get a more intimate experience to better understand the situation. But for a designer, I think the proper advice is to learn to move between both modes. And that’s definitely been a running theme these last two years in school. One professor likened it to sewing, a needle pulling up to view the bigger picture and diving down to dig into the details. This is especially important to think about in service design, when the small interactions between players that are built into a design are as important as the coherence of the entire service blueprint.

So what are the pros and cons of each? When you’re on the dance floor you can see things close up. You can really get into the action and try things out for yourself. You can affect what you see. (And that’s where there may be a con.) Up on the balcony you can see the whole picture, how all the moving parts fit together, but you can’t see everything all at once. There’s just too much information. And that’s where the zooming in and zooming out can be useful.

But is every design research method either/or? Either on the dance floor or on the balcony? Some are more clearly defined than others. Ethnographic observation? Balcony. Trying it out yourself? Dance floor. But the metaphor might not hold so true for a diary study, where you can get intimate knowledge of small details without being actually there. So I guess what I’m saying here is that it’s a useful metaphor, for moving between modes and for covering your bases with a variety of methods that get at a more complete picture. But the methods don’t map perfectly, and sometimes you just have to use your judgment to know if you are doing it right.

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