My first work as a coach occurred accidentally in the late ‘90s working in a fast-growing software company. Developers and system engineers were rapidly being promoted to management jobs without any previous management experience. To help them through this transition, I was designated as their guide. Not realizing this at the time, it was an opportunity to adapt old and to develop new skills that would serve me for years to come. This started my path as a professional certified coach and now I work with organizations to transform their systems and mindset. So though my coaching role started out “by accident,” I am intentional now with the techniques I use.
Learning to evaluate and adapt
In my beginning role, I would evaluate and adapt the progress with individuals, extracting what worked from the experience, then applying it with the next person. As I built expertise over time I learned to apply coaching techniques across various scenarios that worked well with teams and individuals. I quickly realized that interview training, in what we now call “Powerful Questions” could be productive not just with teams, but with individuals as well. The method focuses on the mindset that rather than teaching what you think one needs to know. This method will help build a path from one’s own learning and development that is supported by all parties involved. Teams progressed more quickly because they “owned” their own development, which was focused to their needs. An added benefit I noticed was that the process was flexible and if there were gaps, we could adjust as we moved forward.
Coaching can be introduced at different stages of an organization’s growth and just one person who models coaching practices can help shape an organization’s culture. Without calling it Agile in the early stages, we created collaborative environments through using a coaching arc to assist with product discovery, which created quick wins. Leading meetings using powerful questions as the basis of the agenda, I noticed that results emerged more quickly. I have experienced that teams will learn these techniques “osmotically” as they engage and become part of the organization.
In Agile work, professional coaching is valuable as part of chartering, daily touchpoints, user story writing, and other practices common in the agile team environment. Teaching these coaching skills to a team accelerates development as momentum builds towards self-organizing teams.
Allowing the client to generate the answer nurtures critical thinking for team members who learn to anticipate a well-thought question rather than to blindly follow an instruction.
Using techniques for individuals and teams
On an individual level, coaching is especially helpful when a colleague is in a new or difficult situation. Using the questions technique helps them to organize and clarify their thoughts and by writing down what they say, they can later boil it down into a plan. Sometimes in a stressful or pressurized situation, a few minutes of coaching can help prepare for a tough meeting or decision conference by bringing focus onto the desired outcome.
Obviously, coaching applies whenever people work together. Asking questions is a particularly helpful technique that can simplify a complex or ambiguous situation. Posing a series of questions to “open up” a conversation can “unstick” a colleague or a team and move them onto a path to solve their own problem. A few of my favorite questions: “If you knew, what would it be?”, “What will tell us when are there?”, “What about this will be important in a month? Three months?” Using the question technique that best fits the scenario can move a team, or can compel an individual to take the next step into a beneficial end result.
David O. Levine is an Enterprise Agile Coach and Program Manager with over twenty five years experience in Product Management, Project Management and PMO at the Manager and Director level.