“Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.” ― John Whitmore
Coaching is an interesting and confusing notion, as an Agile coach in my current role we must be explicitly invited by a team or an individual to coach, usually this is driven by an awareness of a specific problem or a general desire to improve in some area. The goal of the coaching is to enable an individual or team to solve the problem or to provide structure and support to enable the learning. The goal is not for the coach to solve the problem.
The goal is not for the coach to solve the problem, the goal is to coach you so that you can solve the problem.
I have reiterated that because it is so critical and so confusing. A team has asked for help with a problem and you are not going to solve it? In fact you may actually let them fail and watch them flounder – how is that helping?
This essentially gets wrapped up in the whole “Give a man a fish” thought process, a coach wants to equip the team or individual with the skills to solve – not just this problem but the next problem and the one after that. A coach may very well know an answer to the problem described, but the agenda of a coach is to grow the team into being able to solve the problem, or at the very least to understand why a particular solution may be appropriate. This can lead to confusion and frustration especially if the problem is causing pain or costing money. The team often want the problem solved far more than they want to learn.
A coach may ask questions that guide thought processes or sow seeds of ideas, they may point out smells or examples of behaviours that may be dysfunctional and warrant further thought, all this is intended to focus attention where it can have the most impact, but all without without explicitly solving the problem. But when the team doesn’t understand this relationship it may appear that the coach is not helping, after all the coach may appear to only identify problems and doesn’t offer solutions. This a common failing of coaches and of me in particular. There is a certain irony that one of the most common coaching guidance I give is around getting to understanding the why of a situation but I sometimes miss explaining this vital information when it relates to my coaching. But when you coach multiple teams it is very easy to assume that everyone understand the coach relationship and this can lead to confusion and frustration.
A very useful example is a situation where two people on a team are having interpersonal issues, Wendy continually leaves a mess at a pairing workstation and this drives Paul crazy, he gets frustrated and seeks out a coach and asks the coach to help. The coach will very likely ask if Paul has discussed this with Wendy and if not why not. Paul may ask the coach to speak on his behalf or to mediate, but again the coach may suggest that Paul should act alone. The coach may offer guidance on how to have difficult conversations (There is a great book on this subject: Crucial Conversations) but it is not the Coaches’ role to be mediator or to engage in conflict resolution. If the matter is more serious they may refer the issue to HR just as any one else might but it is not the Coaches role to solve the problem or to get involved, merely to equip the person with the tools necessary to solve their own problem.
Levels of Coaching
If you consider the coaching on a one-to-one level it may be easier to see how the different levels of coaching are applied and when or why different techniques are applied.
If we take writing a first draft of a user story as an example.
- At one end of the spectrum the coach could ‘teach’ or talk about general story writing techniques and practices and give examples. (Teaching) abstract ideas – blogging, courses, lectures, presentations etc
- Or it might be useful for the person being coached to work through a generic example with the aid of a coach (Training). Workshops or interactive activities such as games.
- Or it might be useful for the person being coached to work through a real example with the coach available to ask questions or the coach asking questions and offering encouraging ideas (Coaching/Consulting/Advice)
- In some cases the coach may sit with the person being coached as a partner sharing thoughts and ideas in a balanced way sharing the work (player coaching/mentoring)
- At the other end of the spectrum it may be that the coach actively participates in a pairing situation and shows the person being coached what is being done and explaining why. – At this point the line between coaching and doing is a line in the sand and depending on the engagement level of the person being coached the level of learning and improvement may be negligible.
- And finally the coach does the work on behalf of the team/individual even though the team could do it for themselves. At this point there is no coaching value at all.
Of these five levels most Agile Coaches operate at levels 2 and especially 3, occasionally in 1 and 4, but 5 is unusual, certainly in my current role we explicitly say that we shouldn’t ‘do’ and if we stray we should be aware that we are no longer coaching. In contrast a Scrum Master spends more time at 3 and 4 and often at 5 or even 6 – resolving impediments, producing metrics etc. But the overlap between the roles is subtle and there is no hard line. It is more a question of the intended outcome, rather than how it is achieved.
Of course the ideal and the reality can be quite different, I have been giving some product owner coaching recently and this is a double edged sword, the product owner aspect of software delivery is one of my favourites and I get enthusiastic. So I have been helping write story maps, and identifying personas and writing stories but every once in a while I’ll start doing, throwing out my ideas, making corrections without discussion and my biggest sin, taking over at the keyboard! Thankfully usually one of us will spot it quickly and non-verbal cues will put me back in my coaching box.
My summary is really that not understanding the goal of the coaching leads to all sorts of problems, the teams facing a particular problem may feel they are not getting the assistance they need. It may be difficult to measure whether a coach is effective when they go out of their way not to ‘do’ something. The role is both very broad and very misunderstood.
But when the role is understood and when those being coached understand the relationship and the value of it, the situation changes drastically. It is a hugely rewarding role and the relationships can be fun and fruitful. When you accept that you are expected to solve your own problems (with guidance) it can be very empowering, a coach becomes someone that can help YOU expand YOUR understanding and ability, but credit belongs to you, not to the coach, they just point the way – you have to do the work.