Using Troika Consulting to Illustrate the Difference Between Coaching and Mentoring

Boris Steiner
Oct 9, 2019 · 5 min read

Liberating Structures are a collection of interaction patterns that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group — from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this guest post, trainer Boris Steiner gives an example of how Liberating Structures can be used with Scrum.

Being a Scrum Master requires you to take many different stances and approaches when working together with teams and individuals. Two of them that are frequently used most are “Coaching” and “Mentoring”. Choosing consciously between those stances is something that we cover in our Professional Scrum Master courses. But what are the differences between them and how can you illustrate those to people that aren’t yet familiar with them?

What is the difference between coaching and mentoring?

In my training as well as in individual customer engagements, I’ve used a Liberating Structure called “Troika Consulting” to do so. In case you have never heard of Liberating Structures: they are a growing and evolving set of techniques to shape interactions between people. It is always the goal to move control of content towards a group and involve everybody within this process. A great introduction can be found in the article “The Value of Liberating Structures for Scrum Masters”.

How to use it in practice?

Troika Consulting roughly works as follows:

  • You’ll need groups of three people

The conversation is organized in 4 rounds.

  • Client shares her challenge
Pictures of the PSM II class that includes Troika Consulting (bottom-right picture)

The Coaching Part

The first round is the perfect place to practice active listening! As a consultant, you have to focus on your client fully and don’t get distracted by your own thoughts or the environment.

During the second round, another aspect of coaching comes into play. Asking clarifying questions to gain further knowledge about the client’s situation. For example: “Who else is involved?”, “What is the part that is not yet clear?”, “What else?”. The questions used here work best when they are powerful ones not directing the client in any direction but only revealing information. In an explicit coaching session, there are also questions that not only clarify but also reveal and activate the client’s own resources (e.g. “What concerns you the most?”, “If you had free choice, what would you do?”). However, this is not part of Troika Consulting.

“Recommended questions are powerful ones not directing the client in any direction but only revealing information.”

The Mentoring Part

As soon as the clients turn its back on them, the stance of the consultants changes from coaching to mentoring. As mentors, they elaborate on the situation of the client. They exchange thoughts and ideas on how to handle it. They share the experiences they have made in similar situations. Sticking to mentoring means that telling what to do is usually not an option. A mentor lets a mentee benefit from his experience but is very well aware of the fact that in complex environments silver bullets or one size fits all approaches won’t work. Therefore a mentor makes offers and probes whether something felt useful or applicable for his mentee at the very same time. This is what happens in Troika Consulting when the clients share back his takeaways in the fourth round.

“As soon as the clients turn its back on them, the stance of the consultants changes from coaching to mentoring.”

Troika Consulting with the consultants ‘mentoring’ the client

How to apply it

So when can you use this format? Personally I use it most often in a training set to help my students get an understanding of the different concepts. It’s also useful as an exercise to be used in Retrospectives (e.g. to use it for collegial advice). I’m sure you can think of many more applications depending on your context and purpose you are trying to achieve. Feel free to share those in the comments.

To get an idea of the invitation used to initiate this particular string of Liberating Structures, I’ll share my approach for that as well: I usually explain the process of Troika Consulting and what to do in its respective steps but don’t yet tell about coaching or mentoring. I merely describe what to do from a very practical point of view (“Face each other and ask your client clarifying questions”) as well as from a mindset one (“Don’t ask with any other intention than curiosity or getting to get better context”). After everyone has had a chance of experiencing the exercise for themselves in the different roles I reveal what the different stances are, give away a bit of my experience on how to act within them. Afterward, I’ll let the participants share whatever comes up and deal with questions that might arise.


You’ll find some other applications for Troika Consulting in Scrum in this blogpost from The Liberators. Have you made personal experiences in Troika Consulting as well as coaching and mentoring? Feel free to share them in the comments! Any thoughts and ideas are appreciated!

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. And join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.

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