5 tips for getting your team on the balcony

Keegan Luiters
June 22, 2021

This is a guest post by Keegan Luiters.
Keegan Luiters is an independent consultant who works with leaders, teams and organisations to lift their performance. This article draws on content from
his book, Team Up, which is available now. Visit keeganluiters.com for more information or connect with him on LinkedIn.

In our busy, complex and fast-paced world, teams are being asked to achieve more – with less. Less people, less resources, less time and less clarity. This increasing speed of operation combined with decreasing predictability (both inside and outside of our organisations) is increasing the complexity of the environments that we are working in.

In this article we will discuss a practice know as “Getting on the balcony” that all teams can benefit from, but many teams struggle to implement. We will discuss some of the common barriers to getting on the balcony and some tips about how your team can do it better and more consistently.

Teams in the 2020s need to be able to learn, adapt and respond to their present context as opposed to being governed by the processes and structures of times gone by. One great way to do this is to do what has been described as “getting on the balcony”. In their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky state that:

“To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground events. We use the metaphor of “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor” to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective you need to see what is really happening.”

One of the hallmarks of complex systems is that, by definition, the same action may lead to different results. There are some causal relationships that seem clearer in hindsight (hence the value of reflection), but there aren't guarantees of exact replication. The world changes fast and there is a huge risk that without being attentive to the shifting circumstances around a team, we can become experts at solving yesterday's problems – instead of today’s and tomorrow’s.

Common barriers that teams face to getting on the balcony.

One of the main reasons that teams don’t get time to reflect and review with perspective is the same as the reason they need to. They are busy. A team’s capacity – more than its skills or ability to work together – is often the limiting factor for its performance. This means that there is limited time available and the idea of stopping to reflect on how the team is performing seems like a luxury that they can’t afford.

Another reason is that when teams do carve out the time to stop, they often don’t have a clear sense of what they are hoping to achieve through that time. It doesn’t feel like real and valuable work. Hence, they will continue being busy on the dancefloor instead of gaining the perspective from the balcony that can guide better decisions and actions for the team. As such, the reflective time seems ineffective and makes future attempts at reflection harder to get into the calendar.

Here are five tips to get the most out of time on the balcony with your team.

1. Recognise time on the balcony as “real work”

We’ve just touched on this, but it’s worth repeating. Reflection on the team is real and valuable work. Team researcher, Michael West, has linked a team’s ability to reflect on both task (what the team is working on) and social (how the team is interacting with each other) dimensions with team effectiveness.  

In other words, effective teams invest in this practice.

2. Build rhythms that work for your team

Having a schedule for reflecting on your team’s performance and way of working will significantly increase the chance of these practices forming. For each team, the cadence may vary – from daily to weekly or fortnightly. As a general principle, more frequency and less volume (shorter meetings) tends to work as a starting point. You can (and should) adjust the rhythm as your team’s needs evolve.

3. Reduce friction

This is partly done by having a rhythm built into your team’s regular schedule. It is also done by using simple and easy to understand questions that are useful to your team to guide the process. The best questions are often simple ones (and the worst are often complex). Having a consistent and short set of questions will help team members get more value out of the reflective activities.

4. Make this a team activity, not just leader led

If the reflection is seen as a box ticking activity by team members, it will be of little benefit. Invest in creating an environment where all team members are able to contribute and raise their concerns and observations. This could be through rotating the responsibility for running the session or using asynchronous methods.

5. Mix synchronous and asynchronous reflection

It’s no longer necessary for us to do our work in the same place and it’s not even necessary for all of our work to be done at the same time. Having ways for people to share their reflections at a time that suits them (using a platform or shared document) means that it’s less of a burden on their time and that synchronous time (when the team does come together at the same time) can be dedicated to exploring the most valuable items raised by the team.

Each of these tips complements the others and can work together to help teams get “on the balcony” and embed practices that support sustained high performance in teams.

Teamgage partnered with Keegan Luiters to help teams understand the benefits of “Getting on the balcony”. Our software goes beyond simply enabling employee engagement to help teams truly benefit through team engagement.