Fixing a Broken Balloon

A good friend of mine had his fifth birthday last year, and I got to thinking about some of my favorite memories of him.

Once, when he was two, he brought me a limp yellow balloon.  “Bwow up, pwease?” he implored.

I tried.  I put it to my lips (despite not knowing where it might have been) and blew, but there was a hole in the balloon.  “I’m sorry, love,” I told him.  “I can’t do it.  It’s broken.”

He considered this seriously and toddled away.  A few minutes later, he brought me a hammer and said, “Dat’s okay. You fix it!”

I loved this little boy’s absolute faith in me.  He was also doing an admirable job of asking for what he needed.  “Bwow up, pwease.”  The directions were clear.  “You fix it.”  Again, no questions about intent.

On the other hand, I wasn’t doing a very good job of expressing my needs.  “It’s broken,” while simple enough for my friend to understand, wasn’t specific.  No wonder he brought me a hammer!  How was he supposed to know what the real problem was if I didn’t tell him?

Instead, I should have tried this: “I can’t blow up this balloon because there’s a hole in it, and I can’t fix it.  But if you bring me a new balloon, I can blow up the new one.”

In my past couple of posts, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place before a meeting can engage in change.  Today’s blog is the third of four on this theme, and it has a lot to do with the balloon and the hammer.

I’ve had a number of experiences in working with meetings as an outside facilitator, and I’ve noticed that some meetings succeed in changing with outside help while others don’t.  At a certain point, it occurred to me to go back and look at the requests for help themselves retrospectively, after I know what sort of success the meeting actually had, to see whether there’s anything about the request itself that might predict ultimate success.  And I did discover some predictive elements, one of which is the specificity of request.  If a meeting asks for something very specific – “bwow up, pwease” – they tend to do better than meetings that just ask for help generally – “it’s broken.”  And interestingly, the meeting doesn’t necessarily have to correctly identify what they need.  There’s something about the self-reflection and asking process itself that indicates readiness.

So–a meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside the meeting.

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