Understanding Coaching

“If you want a future distinct from your past, you have to ask different questions and have different conversations.” — Peter Block

Defining Coaching
As ScrumMasters, part of our job is to improve the productivity and engineering practices of our teams in any way possible. One way to help our teams improve is coaching.

Before learning coaching I thought that it was just the act of helping people set goals and achieve them.

However when I started studying coaching, it emerged a rich and a complex field, with a wide range of influences.

These influences include related disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, counselling, learning theory, system theory, change theory, and others.

Within each of these fields there are many insights, models and approaches that coaching either draws from or is influenced by.

While trying to understand all these influences could be overwhelming and confusing, at same time is useful to know that coaching has heritage and what this heritage is. This gives a practitioner greater confidence in his skills.

The term “coach” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word for a carriage — which takes you from where you are now to where you want to be.

The purpose of a coach is to assist with someone’s personal development and performance improvement and to help that person achieve her goals. [Pavlina, “Life Coaching”]

Some definitions of Coaching are:

- Unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. [Whitmore, “Coaching for Performance: GROWing human potential and purpose”]

- The art of facilitating the performance, learning, and development of another. [Downey, “Effective Coaching”]

- Helping you do your best. [Lundin, Harry and Christensen,”Fish! Sticks”]

- Coaching closes the gap between thinking about doing and doing. [Martin, “The Life Coaching Handbook]

- Coaching is about performing at your best through the individual and private assistance of someone who will challenge, stimulate, and guide you to keep growing. [Donovan, founder and CEO of Noble Manhattan Coaching]

- Facilitating positive change by improving thinking. [NLG definition of coaching]

In a nutshell: Coaching is a vehicle to transport a coachee from where he is now in his life, work, etc. to where he wants to be.

In the context of scrum teams, coaching takes on the dual flavor of coaching and mentoring. You are coaching to help someone reach for the next goal in their life, just as a professional work/life coach does. You are also sharing your scrum experiences and ideas as you mentor them, guiding them to use scrum well. In this way, coaching and mentoring are entwined for the sake of developing talented agilists so that more and better business results arise through scrum.

In the scrum world, coaching and mentoring have been wrapped up in the cumulative term coaching.

We are using skills from the world of professional coaching, but we are not truly professional coaches. A serious point of ethics for professional coaches holds that the coachee’s agenda must be the single guiding light of the coaching relationship. The coach exists solely for the coachee, not so for us. We can’t let the coachee’s agenda rule completely because we must also mix in our agenda: to influence the coachee to use scrum well.

It’s no big deal; just know that we are coaches-like, using tools from professional coaching, and we are mentors with an expertise in scrum. We educate from this expertise and use coaching skills to help each person make the transition to using scrum well.

Finally, why do these concepts make so much sense together?

Why do Scrum teams benefit from coaching?

Getting good results with scrum is actually relatively easy: form a cross-functional team, prioritize backlog items, and create a shippable product every iteration. Follow the framework and your team is likely to deliver value. There’s no surprise here.

Getting truly great results, especially consistently, however, is a bit rarer. Great results require a great team. And great teams rarely just happen. A team that’s new to scrum and aspiring toward greatness may need a trained, experienced coach. This is because scrum is a change in mind-set, and mind-sets don’t change overnight — or even after two or three days of training. Even if they do, they need some direction. [Adkins, “Coaching Agile Teams”]

Among all coaching definitions I like more the following: Facilitating positive change by improving thinking, because when people approach a ScrumMaster as a coach, it is usually because they want better results than they are currently getting.

Effective coaching today is about how to learn to improve people’s thinking. Thinking is what many employees are being paid to do, after all.

Many employees are highly capable individuals who will thrive on this new way of effective coaching.

The Iceberg model
When coaching scrum teams we often fall into the trap of directing our energies to what is visible. What we see are the players’ behaviors and the results of these behaviors (outcome).

There is a metaphor called the Iceberg model used by cognitive behavioral therapy and various behavioral sciences.

The iceberg model of behavior recognizes that performance and some behavior of people is visible (above the surface), but our performance is governed by the way we think and how we feel, and this is largely invisible (below the surface). To change behavior, which drives performance we need to change the way we think. This is at the core of any behavior or performance. Yet when we want to influence change we concentrate and work on people’s performance. We tell them to change the way they do things. It is rare that the habits and feelings that drive a person’s performance is discussed and even less do we discuss a person’s thinking. Yet the most effective way to improve performance particularly during times of massive change is to support people to think differently.

Closely related to results are actions and working practices: observable things we do (differently) in order to get the results. These are the tip of the iceberg.

Sticking with these is not what a coach should do. In order to get the desired results and facilitate sustainable change, a coach should work on the invisible (or not observable) part of work.

A scrum coach should do four things to improve work and get visible results.

First, and not the most relevant, is to provide new ideas from the environment, i.e. explain the world from Agile, Scrum and Lean viewpoint.

Next, and more important, is to help people understand their thinking. It is helping the people to give words to their issues. Naming is important part of understanding. This also has a lot to do with cause-effect relations; asking “what happens if X” or “how does this action affect Y“.

The most important part is helping people to turn thinking into action. A Coach helps people to find places for experiment and facilitates the needed agreements that are required to change old working habits. A Coach also helps people not to fall back to old routines and encourages when novel approach feels painful.

Finally, again very important, is to help people reflect their work. This creates a link between thinking and action, which may require retrospectives. [Lilja, “Understanding coaching: Iceberg metaphor”]

Adkins, L. “Coaching Agile Teams”, Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2010.

Attanasio F. “CREATE New Thinking with One-on-One Coaching”<http://www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2013/september/create-new-thinking-by-one-on-one-coaching>, 2013

Downey, M. “Effective coaching”, London: Texere Publishing Ltd. 2003.<http://keypointecoaching.com>, 2010. Web.

Lilja, S. “Understanding coaching: Iceberg metaphor” <http://samililja.wordpress.com>, June 2012. Web

Martin, C. “The Life Coaching Handbook”, UK: Crown House Publishing. 2001

Pavlina, S. “Life Coaching” <http://bit.ly/16VC6eL> StevePavlina.com, 12 April 2008. Web.

Rock, D. “Quiet Leadership”, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Rock, D. and J. Page, L. “Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice”, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009).

Stephen, C., Lundin, H. P. and Christensen, J.”Fish! Sticks”, London: Hyperion Books.2003.

Whitmore, J. “Coaching for Performance: GROWing human potential and purpose”4th Ed., London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009.

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