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April 9, 2013 » 8:40 am

“Balance Bikes” for Changemakers

How do you make it safe to learn?

A few months ago, I was chatting with a friend who races dirt bikes, and he was talking about the challenge of picking up the sport when you’re an adult. The problem? The bigger you are, the harder you fall. Because falling is riskier as an adult than as a kid, it’s harder to learn the intricate nuances of balance. If you don’t practice falling, you will never be effective.

Then he added, “You’ve heard of balance bikes, right?”

I had not. I — like many of my peers — learned to ride a bike with training wheels. It was a harrowing experience. I would spend a few days happily riding around with training wheels, and then my Dad would say, “Ready to try without?” And I would always say no. I had zero confidence that I could ride without them. Somehow, my Dad always managed to get me to try, and more often than not, the experiment would end quickly.

As it turns out, training wheels do the opposite of what they are supposed to do, which is to train kids to ride bikes. In order to learn how to ride a bike, you need to learn balance. Training wheels actually discourage you from learning balance.

Balance bikes are bikes without pedals. Kids sit on the bike and push themselves forward with their feet. When they want to stop, they put their feet down. Balance bikes provide the same security from falling as training wheels, but they help you to learn balance in the process.

For the past few years, it’s been hip to tout failure in the social sector. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s tremendously shallow, largely manifesting itself in big talk and ill-conceived failure contests. Failure competitions are the training wheels of changemaking. They don’t make it any safer to take thoughtful risks, and they don’t create a real path for learning how to make change meaningfully.

What’s missing from the social sector right now are balance bikes — structures that support learning the right things by lowering the cost of falling and by encouraging practice.

What are examples of balance bikes for changemakers?

I think one example is practice-oriented mentorship. Most professional cooks learn their craft through staging, where they’ll work for free on their off days in another chef’s kitchen. They’re not simply shadowing other cooks. They’re doing real work with peers and mentors. This is not just a well-understood concept among cooking circles. It’s prevalent practice.

The closest thing to this in the social sector are incubators and accelerators, both of which I think are fantastic. However, I think there’s room for something less formal and more incremental, something that looks and feels more like staging.

What do you think are potential balance bikes for changemakers? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Photo by Kate McCarthy. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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4 Responses to ““Balance Bikes” for Changemakers”

  1. "there’s room for something less formal and more incremental, something that looks and feels more like staging" Sounds familiar!

  2. Ridiculously easy practice opportunities!

  3. […] Balance Bikes for Changemakers (199) […]

  4. […] I’m trying to create the equivalent of balance bikes for changemakers. These have largely taken the form of DIY toolkits for developing strategy and culture, which […]

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