At the end of one of my Team Coaching workshops, a participant–an agile coach with years of experience– remarked, “I had no idea there was more to coaching than asking questions.”
Another coach commented, “I see now why me teaching how to write stories when I first started with my team didn’t work out.”
A third said, “Our first Agile coach forced us to do things his way, so I thought that was the right way to coach. Now, I see so many other options.”
Comments like these aren’t uncommon. They reflect what people are taught about coaching, or what they learn by watching other coaches in action.
Asking questions to reveal new ways of thinking is certainly useful. Teaching can be the right approach. Forcing—not so much. But these aren’t the only roles a coach can take.
Modeling a method or practice, facilitating discussion and decision-making, offering observations, teaching a process—all have the potential to help teams. All are useful skills for coaches. However, more important is knowing when to use different sorts of know-how. Effective coaches continually assess what the goal is, and which roles and actions will be most effective in supporting people and teams.
Here are a few rules of thumb:
Check Your Intent
Do you intend to show the team what you know, or to help them take their next step? Start with the next tiny step the team can take. That will telegraph that you understand where they are coming from, and build start building confidence–in the team, and in your guidance.
Check Your Assumptions
What do you assume about the team’s problems, the potential solutions, and the people involved?
Remember, the people you are working with know stuff that you don’t. The people you are working with know a lot of useful stuff. They may even know what you want to share with them, but haven’t figured out how to make it work in their environment.
If you don’t pay attention to what is, whatever help you offer is a roll of the dice. There is a chance your intervention will help–but it that chance is essentially random.
Test your observations against an explicit model, and have more than one model to draw on. Humans make sense of observations by fitting them into existing models. Make sure you can explain what your model is (at least to yourself). Knowing more than one model allows you to recognize different patterns and different problems. For example, I draw on Hackman’s research on teams, Jerry Weinberg’s MOIJ model, and Glenda Eoyang’s CDE model, among others.
Remember The Rule of Three
Always consider at least three possible interpretations, at least three possible explanations, and at least three candidate actions. This will help you avoid latching on to the first remotely plausible idea that comes to mind, and you are likely to understand the problem better for applying this Rule.
When you do intervene—offer a suggestion, ask a question, facilitate, teach or adjust the environment— use the lightest touch possible. You can always do a bit more, but if you start with a heavy hand you may damage rapport.
We’ve been conditioned towards best practices, one-size-fits-all solutions, and standard processes. If you want your help to be received as helpful, having many methods–and a way to gauge which method to use–is your best bet.