The blue dot and the terrible dance of power
Where is the blue dot in your organisation?
This lovely little exercise from Barry Oshry reveals and opens up a lot about how organisational systems work — and how management fails, and innovation and creativity are blocked.
We start a session with a group by telling them that, under three of their chairs, there’s a blue dot. But they mustn’t look yet!
Those with the blue dot have a special assignment — to produce a brilliant, interactive, engaging, entertaining ten-minute summary of the day’s workshop at the end, to sum up and leave us all on a high.
They have to work in the breaks, lunch-time, odd spaces. It’s a high pressure, high opportunity assignment.
(Have you ever seen someone ‘participate’ in a workshop day, with that kind of burden of responsibility at the same time?)
Before everyone checks, we ask what it’s like to know that they might have that blue dot.
‘Scary’, ‘oh no — not more’, ‘ugh- I have to pay attention now’, ‘a chance to show off!’, ‘wow, I could do without that’
We note that, with the possibility of the blue dot, people are sitting forward on their seats. Perhaps average heart rates are up a bit. There’s a bit of nervous laughter and drumming of feet and hands.
Then, they check.
And it’s a facilitator’s cheap trick! There are no blue dots. And / but the laughter of relief is real.
What’s it like having no blue dot?
‘A relief!’ ‘Phew’ ‘now I can sit back and do my email while you entertain me’ ‘I’m secretly disappointed’ ‘So happy now!’
The blue dot is a metaphor, a MacGuffin, for responsibility in an organisation (and with responsibility, comes a certain type of power).
And blue dots have a magnetic, or perhaps a gravitational, attraction, don’t they? The more you have of them, the more you’re gonna get.
They whiz towards you, like the field of your existing overload of blue dots is sucking up more.
The blue dot is responsibility, authority to get something done, power, being the person on the spot. It’s calling you to be more than you are, to stretch, to work, to be alive, to deliver.
And… some blue dots are toxic. You have the blue dot, but not the power, authority, capability, room to deliver.
And too many? Overload, dropping balls, overstretch — and, in the extreme, burnout. The tragedy of which, as Barry says, is that, from the outside and the inside, burnout looks like a species of personal failure. But in fact, we can clearly see it’s systemic. It’s the blue dots!
The opposite is also true. Absence of blue dots is a rest, a break.
But then… it becomes disengagement, disempowerment. The action muscles get flabby. No blue dot = no life*
*This, by the way, is another facilitator’s trick. We then ask for volunteers to do that brilliant final presentation… we’re offering them a blue dot! Life itself!
So in organisations, we can diagnose and act by looking at the dance of the blue dot.
Are they shared, but owned? Clear, but empowering?
Are they flowing elegantly, like a beautiful dance? Or gummed up in one place, stuck, imbalanced?
What does the dance of the blue dot look like in your organisation?
A game for you to play! Without looking at the picture below, how many leadership / systems / management / organisational development frameworks could this exercise potentially lead into and open up?
PS Who has the blue dot in a workshop room full of people, with a speaker, flipchart, and slides at the front? Well, if you’re doing it wrong, the facilitator :-)