Make yourself look good and you'll have a job and an army of ill-wishers; highlight and exploit your client’s brilliance and you’ll have a job and an army of fans.
– Quoting myself.
We are hired to give our clients solutions that work, not to ask endless questions! I hear this emotional expression and its endless variations from a lot of agile coaches, including those at the top of the food chain of the agile world.
Fair enough, there’s a rhyme and reason to that view. And it is a deeply flawed one. Here is why.
Let’s get this one misunderstanding out of the way first and foremost – coaching is NOT about asking powerful questions. It is true that masterful coaches ask questions that are short, simple, go to the heart of the matter and thus wield immense power of evoking awareness for the client. However, mastery does not end, nor does it start here.
True mastery is rooted in the deep understanding of coaching competencies. True mastery is agile and varied enough to be highly useful to coaching clients in a broad range of situations. A directive telling approach might leave the client in awe of the consultant’s depth and breadth of knowledge; a coaching approach will leave behind a more capable, stronger, and resilient client who can implement a more sustainable change.
Chicken and egg problem
I suspect that clients hire us for our expertise because they don’t know what to do. And, since they do not know what masterful coaching looks, sounds, and feels like, I do not blame them for that. As a matter of fact, the agile community in general does not know that either. Thus my frustration with the term “agile coach” as a catchphrase in job descriptions and resumes.
It is an endless loop – clients ask agile coaches to come fix them. We fix them and everyone is happy. We leave, they revert to their own ways and ask someone else to come fix them. It is a vicious loop. Wasteful and emblematic of a single biggest problem – the solutions are ours, not theirs.
And this loop will go on and on and on until people with business, transformational, and technical mastery and great coaching skills start offering their clients better ways of introducing and sustaining change through a collaborative partnership. In such a partnership the coach and client walk the journey together. The objective is to build sustainable change. At the end, the coach does not leave the client in a state of agile nirvana no one can achieve. Instead, they leave the client in a state where they can stand on their own feet and move forward rather than rolling back.
Coaching is not the only a stance – it’s an approach
It is absolutely true that a client’s needs often go well beyond skills a professional coach not experienced in the agile world can bring to the table. Professional coaching is only one of a few stances an agile coach can choose to take. And I would argue that a coaching mindset and approach should be a default one for a masterful agile coach.
Lyssa Adkins’ agile coaching competencies framework has been and remains a gold standard to capture the skills a great agile coach needs. It encompasses both content and process. On the content side the disciplines needed are teaching/training, consulting and mentoring. The process side consists of the disciplines facilitating and professional coaching. All these skills should be based on a solid foundation of the mastery areas of business and product management, organizational change and cultural transformation, and technical craftsmanship.
While the best agile coaches master all five disciplines and cover one or more foundational mastery areas, truly masterful agile coaches discover and master the “sixth discipline,” the innate and intuitive knowledge of when to engage each of those five other disciplines and perfect their ability to move among them with ease. Professional coaching competency allows for mastering this sixth discipline as it involves the deeper listening, understanding, and true partnership with the client which other stances lack.
Client has the answers. Or do they?
“My clients do not have answers – they hire me to give them answers.” So let me get this straight. Your client, a collection of hardworking, educated, experienced individuals who have been running their company successfully until now is so unintelligent and lost that they need you to fix their company for them? It is actually this approach that makes your job harder. No one likes to be fixed. Especially by someone who doesn’t think they are intelligent enough to fix themselves.
Now, there is a place and time to give clients our professional opinions about what might work for them. And, to do that well, we must realize that what worked for the last client will not simply drop into this new client’s world the same way. Only the client has enough experience in their own domain to know what will fit. What fascinates me most, is that agile coaches often declare that we are in the age of complexity and it will only get more complex. Then, turn around and declare that we can solve every company’s problems with our simple, prepackaged and out-of-the-box solutions, sold to the highest bidder.
Let’s face it, we do not have all the answers. The clients might not have them either. However, they are much better positioned to make the decisions about the solutions that fit than we are. And, they are the ones who will be living with the consequences of those decisions for years to come.
The client might not have the answers. But they always have a way to find the best answers for their own context. The coach’s job is to walk in a partnership with them on the journey of uncovering those answers. Not leading them down a simple and easy path that mirrors the one many others walked before. The coach’s job is to help them discover a sustainable path that works for them, is designed by them, and leads them to the business results they desire. This doesn’t mean that we stand back and just ask a series of ridiculous questions until the client either happens across the right answer or falls off a cliff. Our experience and expertise as agilists helps us to be in full partnership with the client. We have parts of the equation that might be the parts they are looking for and they know the parts of the equation we have no possible way of knowing. It is the mixing of their experience and expertise with our experience and expertise that make the partnership work. Forcing our solutions on clients whom we see as broken or incompetent in an effort to “fix” them may gain compliance but it generally will not achieve what is needed to sustain the change.
How can we do better
Let me give you an example that is fresh in my mind. A friend of mine, “Dave”, got an absolutely fantastic job as a part of a big agile coaching team in an industry completely unknown to him before. It is four months into the engagement and he is loving it.
Dave: Alex, there so much to learn, so many opportunities for a real meaningful impact!
Me: Sounds like you are having a time of your life there.
Dave: Yep, and I already saved the company a pile of cash, they actually told me that. What is mind boggling is there are opportunities to save many more of these piles, and they have not thought about it until I started asking questions.
Me: Interesting, what did you ask?
Dave: Well, they fixed one problem, so I asked, “Have you thought about other similar offices where this problem might occur?” The answer was, “No, not really.” “Why not?” “Well, it did not really occur to us after we were done with the root cause analysis. But great thinking Dave, you keep saving us money.”
Dave made a great impact for his client. That’s an awesome result of great consulting. And I see where and how he can make an even greater impact. Let’s examine what happened.
Coach has made a very reasonable suggestion to see if other offices might have similar problems and the solution applied preventively would save a lot of money for the company. While on the one hand this suggestion helps the client to save that money, it does not enable the client to inspect their thinking and to shift it into the direction where they can make these conclusions and logical connections on their own.
Client: We have finished our root cause analysis, lessons learned. Mission accomplished.
Coach: Looks like this one is in a bag. What have you learned through those exercises?
Client: (long list of lessons learned, maybe a few fun tidbits)
Coach: And where else can you apply these learnings now?
Client: Umm, I don’t know. Maybe look and see if something similar exists in our other facilities?
Coach: And what might you find there?
Client: Well, it could be cool if we could find this problem but much earlier – that actually can be the case with other offices – they are a bit newer.
Of course it is a mock conversation and client’s thoughts might have gone in a completely different direction, or they might have got stuck and resulted in the “I don’t know” answer, at which point the coach might have suggested an option and check with the client if it is a good one.
Coach: And where else can you apply these learnings now?
Client: Umm, I don’t know, nothing comes to mind. Are you thinking anything specific?
Coach: Well, you mentioned that you are overseeing a few other similar offices; I wonder if it would be useful to consider what might be there?
Client: Hm, didn’t think about it…
At any rate a coaching conversation creates an open space for the client to voice their ideas, concerns, suggestions, and thoughts; it creates an opportunity for the client growth, for the improvement of their thinking process and building their thinking muscle for the time when the coach leaves.
You can ask a very valid question, “Well, what is the difference? The client is happy, the result is achieved, money saved, the consultant is a hero-like.” Coach is never the hero of a story, otherwise she is not a coach. Coach is a partner who walks with the client side-by-side helping where necessary to gain clarity, make decisions, solve problems, and never be the focal point, the white knight of the journey. The coach’s job is to highlight and exploit the client’s wisdom and brilliance.
Another coaching conversation that comes to mind looked like this,
Client: We tried it and we are stuck.
Coach: Can I give you a different perspective?
Client: Please do!
I want to commend the coach for thinking differently and noticing that there might be different perspectives to help the client to gain additional valuable information. I am also quite sure that based on the coach’s expertise and experience the perspective being offered is quite valuable. However, there are two things to consider that make the interchange even stronger.
First, it does not take into account the fact that the perspective, and possible associated solution, comes from outside of the client’s context and might not be applicable to their world, environment, constraints, and mode of operations.
Second, it stunts the client’s growth. You might think this wording is too harsh, yet will stand by it. Our clients learn more about how to make changes in their world when they are challenged to think through possible solutions, implement them experimentally, and iterate as appropriate. Solutions generated in this manner introduce a more sustainable change because it comes through the client’s own wisdom and context specific experience. One benefit of working this way is that people are more willing to implement changes they (co-) design, so working in this manner reduces resistance to change. Another benefit is that with coach’s help the client will learn a powerful way of working through the complexities of finding solutions. Thus, when a different problem arises they are more able to repeat the thinking process and successfully design more changes. By jumping in too soon, the coach may save clients the time and responsibility it takes to do their own thinking; however, this also steals an opportunity for the client to learn. In this situation, the client will learn that the easiest way to find a solution is to ask the coach. And while that might be true, in the process, the coach becomes an expensive crutch to enable the client to take the easy way out. Two things I’ve seen happen with this method. First, the client will often hand the responsibility for making change over to the coach. Second, the client will often blame the coach when solutions don’t work or when the coach can’t force people to adopt them.
A better question asked by a coach in this situation would be,
Client: We tried and we are stuck.
Coach: Ugh, being stuck is frustrating. What other perspectives can we look at this problem through?
(A little rabbit hole for the coaching geeks – notice that the coach’s language matches the perceptual system of the client’s story – kinesthetic in this case. Matching the perceptual system is the easiest way to create what Daniel Kahneman calls cognitive ease and to build rapport with your client.)
Client: Well, I don’t know, maybe looking at similar cases, but really not sure. What do you think? What have you seen in your practice?
Coach: It seems like looking for patterns is one of the options. In my previous engagement my clients did a lot of standardized root cause analysis and reached out to the industry association for their expertise. How might something like this work here?
As you see, the conversation is unfolding on a bit of a different trajectory. The coach does not jump in to save the client right away after hearing that the client is stuck. The coach, while knowing well that they saw similar cases before, pulls back and lets the client dig into their own expertise to see if anything is there. This is a very simple variation of a brainstorming invitation. While the coach does not spell it out and lays out the rules of the game, by extending an open invitation for client’s thoughts, they say, “I believe in you and I value your expertise and opinion. I also realize that the world you live in is not the same as the other client’s I’ve worked with. Let’s dig in and see what’s there.”
At the same time the coach does not shy away from sharing their opinion with the client when asked. Under no circumstances should a coach say something along the lines, “I am a coach, I cannot tell you want to do, I will ask questions to help you find the answers in yourself.” That is exactly where coaches get a bad rap.
Client: I don’t know what to do, I am stuck!
Coach: So, what would you like to do then?
This sort of a conversation is not a coaching to start with, and it has a high chance of creating one more unemployed coach, and for a good reason. It’s frustrating to the client. It’s shirking off the responsibility the client has hired the coach for. And it simply doesn’t show skillfulness or competence as a coach.
There’s a razor thin difference between coaching and mentoring. EMCC – European Mentoring and Coaching Council recognizes that. David Clutterbuck – a preeminent authority in the coaching world called mentoring “coaching on steroids” and “coaching plus”. Lyssa’s framework separates mentoring and professional coaching into two completely distinct categories of content and process. I believe that this is more for ease of explaining the model. In fact, in Lyssa’s classes when she demonstrates coaching vs mentoring, the two disciplines share the same skills. The only difference is that mentoring adds the coach’s wisdom to the client’s wisdom and allows the client to determine what to do with it. Mentoring the client by sharing past experiences with the client is not a hammer and your client’s problems are not nails. Consulting via a coaching mindset looks much the same. The difference is that the coach might share a professional opinion based upon their expertise and knowledge that the client does not have access to. The key is that before assuming the client can’t figure it out for themselves, they talk through it with the client and then offer consulting (or teaching) to fill the gaps. Then, they ask the client how following the coach’s recommendation would work in their context which hands the decision making power back over to the client. Remember, the “sixth discipline” is moving among the disciplines of the framework skillfully and requires self management, mastery and finesse that only practice can bring about.
Where to go from here
Revisit your engagement agreement. You might be brought to fix what is broken. You might be brought for your expertise and years of experience in specific areas of business, technical, or transformational work, or a combination thereof. That is an indicator that people notice you and people want your expertise. If you want to adopt a coaching stance as your default approach (but as said before, not the only one), this is the place and time to create a great coaching agreement with your client, to make sure that your approach, their expectations, and the potential outcomes of the engagement are in alignment.
Talk to the client about a sustainable approach to partnering with them. Ask for their permission to coach, and explain the longer term benefits of the approach such as saving them money on an endless string of consultants. Reassure them that the goal is not to ask a bunch of questions and leave them in a permanent state of confusion. Discuss how this approach can enable them to design solutions that fit their context and solve their problems in a way that has potential to reduce the unintended consequences that may arise if solutions are determined by someone without history in their company..
Get curious. You are not a cat and you are not under a threat of inevitable demise due to getting a bit curious unlike that poor feline.
Curiosity is the natural state best coaches bring to their work. Even if they do have some form of an answer, a masterful coach will hold that answer back for the curiosity of what their client might have up their sleeve that will eventually serve them better. “Can I give you a different perspective?” is a question that asks clients permission yet is totally void of curiosity. In many cases this question is asked and followed by the solution without a pause, since permission isn’t actually being requested. “What are some different perspectives?” brims with curiosity. Not only that, it also underlines the fact that the coach is curious what their client is capable of. It declares that the coach knows the client is competent and doesn’t need to be fixed. This curiosity also declares unwavering belief that this coach-client partnership can achieve results with coach’s contribution, or without. It shows a longer term perspective than solving the problem for today. It seeks a way to also solve tomorrow’s problems. “I wonder what might be helpful to my client right now?” is the mode of operation of great coaches. It provokes thoughts and insights. It makes observations and shares well placed intuitions that are held lightly and can spark the awareness the client has been missing.
Another two questions to help a coach to stay curious were prompted by Marion Franklin in her book The Heart of Laser Focused Coaching, “Why are they telling me this?” and “What makes this a problem for them?”
I consider the second question to be the most important of the two because listening with curiosity for the answer to the second question will make your coaching much more effective. The stressed part of this question is the last two words, “for them.” You might have seen this problem many times, and the solutions may be numerous. However, “for them” should make you pause and listen more intently to the client. Listen to their specific circumstances and situation. At the end of the day a masterful agile coach might move into a mentoring or consulting stance and share a solution from experience that helped other clients to solve a similar problem. The key is to do that with intent knowing it’s the thing that will be most helpful for the client both today and tomorrow.
Don’t fix the client. If you really believe your client is broken and you are there to fix them, perhaps coaching isn’t right for you. If that’s what you really believe, perhaps you should simply tell them directly. “You are less than competent at your chosen profession. You are broken in your thinking, actions, habits, and behaviors and I am here to fix you.” What a ludicrous suggestion. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. If that’s the way you see your client, it is likely that they already know. You may not think they are intelligent enough to pick up on it, but I’m pretty sure they are. It is much easier to and assume the client is incompetent than it is to get curious. It takes more effort to see a client’s greatness, though it should not be so. After all, they have been running their company long before your arrival. It is likely that they will continue doing so long after you are gone. By being a partner with them, you have an opportunity to influence their further existence for the time when you are not there. Will you leave them better than you found them? When you are gone, will they be more resilient, more capable, and more confident in their own ability to solve complex and adaptive problems? Or will you leave a bunch of trained copy-cats and “launched” teams that regress to their old ways the moment the door thuds behind you? If you ask your client which impact they want you to make, it is likely that they will ask for the former and not the latter.
Share your knowledge freely and hold it lightly. When the client is stuck and doesn’t know what to do and where to go, it is absolutely fine for you to masterfully shift into a different stance that is most useful for the client at the moment and help them from that stance. The problem I see amongst hundreds and hundreds of agile coaches is not that they use their professional coaching skills too much, but that they use them incorrectly or resort to other parts of the agile coach competencies framework either too often or too early or both. As I said before, giving clients answers is fine when that is what is best for them in the bigger picture. Giving them answers too early will stunt their growth and deprive them of the learnings they could achieve if a coach had used their other skills to help the client move towards their desired outcomes.
How you share your insights, experiences, intuitions, and observations matters. Sharing your opinions as the final truth and the only right answer that the client has no other choice but to accept leads to the same result as sharing them too often. This hampers the client’s ability to grow, to explore, and to find the best solution that serves them long term. Share your expertise and opinions without attachment. Believe that the client might actually come up with something you don’t think will work but it actually does. Share your thoughts with curiosity, “I wonder how something like this might work here.” Share it with the openness to hearing, “You are nuts, it is never going to work here,” or “Nope, tried that, did not work.” Share your insights, observations, intuitions, and experiences and follow them with a question like, “What might be useful here?” “How does that sound?” “What can you learn from this?”
Practice, practice, practice. Coaching is considered a competency-based discipline for a reason. I know a few fascinating individuals who read so many coaching books that I can’t fit all those on all my bookshelves. And they cannot coach to save their lives. Building competency in coaching comes through practicing, getting feedback, and then practicing more. Learning coaching an inspect and adapt activity that fits perfectly into the agile world.
When possible, ask your client for permission and record a session and then listen to them. Listening to yourself coaching is the number one way to improve your competencies. Listening to others’ coaching is also helpful. As you reflect on your work, you will hear things you want to improve. Learn from it, design experiments, go forth and conquer!
Get trained. Learning and mastering core coaching competencies you can tuck some fantastic tools into your coaching toolbox that will help you far beyond your current career. Training is essential to building a solid foundation to your coaching skills. Training offerings are plentiful and it’s hard to choose which one will benefit you most. Look for those that offer a solid foundation steeped in the core coaching competencies. Avoid those that offer magic tools and frameworks that you can repeat according to directions to solve your clients’ problems and make them immensely happy. Avoid those that offer you to teach their toolset. There is nothing wrong with the toolset per se, except that they are meant to scale your coaching competence. And like scaling in agile, if the foundation is broken, scaling could be disastrous. Tools and frameworks can be helpful sometimes yet might not be useful for your client’s specific context.
There is a huge and wonderful world of coaching well beyond powerful questions. Clients are waiting for us to serve them more skillfully in a way that serves them better than simply giving them solutions that work. They want a true partner as they navigate the brave new scary VUCA world. I invite you to explore the professional coaching stance and find out for yourself what might be in it for you.