Ingeniously Simple
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Ingeniously Simple

Book Summary: Coaching the Team at Work by David Clutterbuck

At Redgate we believe the best way to make software products is by engaging small teams empowered with clear purpose, freedom to act and a drive to learn. But, with these beliefs in mind, what role does coaching play in making the most of our teams?

3 Big Ideas

  • Team coaching is a more complex beast than coaching individuals. It’s simultaneously coaching the team as a system, plus every individual team member, plus every connection within that team!
  • Team coaching goes beyond facilitating a solution to a current challenge. It aims to foster a self-coaching mentality in a team, until the coach is no longer needed.
  • While Tech Leads and Engineering Managers are often responsible for coaching teams at Redgate, their closeness to that team can lead to additional challenges in getting the most value from their coaching.

2 Best Quotes

Team Coaching is…Partnering with an entire team in an on-going relationship, for the purpose of collectively raising awareness and building better connections in the team’s internal and external systems and enhancing the team’s capability to cope with current and future challenges

I have found that the vast majority of problems team coaches bring to supervision derive, in some manner, from poor contracting or accepting assignments that should have been refused

Top Takeaway

Coaching teams and individuals rely on a similar set of core competencies, but coaching teams applies different pressures on how those competencies get used.

The extra complexities of team coaching make the scoping and contracting of a team coaching engagement crucial. A successful team coaching engagement requires a strong understanding of what team coaching aims to be, the fundamental goals of coaching the team, their current state, how the engagement will (roughly) work, and when/how the coach will start to step away.

Big Ideas Expanded

At Redgate we believe the best way to make software products is by engaging small teams empowered with clear purpose, freedom to act and a drive to learn.

One powerful form that drive to learn can take is a “self-coaching” team, where peer-to-peer coaching is an engrained part of the team’s learning culture. Such a culture encourages them to reflect on the entirety of their systemic team, including the individuals in the team, the relationships between them, and how they can improve.

“Team Coaching”, as discussed here, is the process of building that self-coaching capability within a team.

Team coaching requires significant extra knowledge to call upon, including group dynamics, systems theory, and decision-making theory. Extensive coaching knowledge is also needed. Coaching a team within the bounds of tactical frameworks (such as GROW) can be difficult, as teams often need a much more organic and explorative coaching space.

There are also extra skills needed when coaching teams. A team coach can expect to navigate differing speeds and styles of learning, group and sub-group dynamics, and areas of challenge around diversity.

Effective coaching always requires personal qualities such as compassion curiosity, courage, and humility. These become exponential more complex when coaching an increasing number of people. Each extra person not only adds to the number of people involved, but also adds relationships to all other involved people while making the team “system” more complex.

This is probably the most complex part, especially at Redgate. The goal is for everyone to be coaching their own team. Keeping all coaching responsibilities to a nominated person can be hugely disempowering for the members of a team.

For a team to reach the point of having a strong, self-coaching mentality, they will often need some help and support. That support is the responsibility of the team coach, to “stimulate a climate where coaching is integral to the way the team carries out its daily tasks”.

But who could that team coach be?

Often our leaders in Engineering at Redgate — Tech Leads and Engineering Managers, especially — take on this role of team coach. Coaching within a management hierarchy can have some extra barriers, included balancing the need to be heard with the need to coach, defaulting to parent/child roles, biases from vested interests (such as existing relationships or conflict between delivery goals and team growth), and the complexities of confidentiality when dealing with difficult or sensitive topics.

None of these barriers are insurmountable, but they do make the already difficult task of coaching a team even more challenging. This is a large motivator to bringing in an external coach, be they external to Redgate or a member of our internal coaches team.

Given the ever-presence of a Tech Lead or Engineering Manager, when would an external coach be worth bringing in?

There’s no magic formula for this, but some possible heuristics may be:

  • The team has found “what” they want to improve, but have struggled to identified “how” they will do that
  • There’s a “performance itch” — a feeling the team could or should be doing better, but are unsure how or why
  • Progress with an existing coach is limited, often due to time constraints
  • The current coach is impeded by obstructions caused by the challenges discussed earlier



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