Research Paper By Vernon Stinebaker
(Agile Coach & Business Coach, CHINA)
Coaching Case Study
Coaching can help people move outside their comfort zone to realize their latent potential and provide long-term organizational change. But to do this, coaching must be more challenging and move away from the notion that supporting the individual alone is the most important factor for success. (Blakey, Day 2012)
I have two key motivations for sharing this case study:
- To offer insight and reference for anyone who might be interested in group or team coaching
- To demonstrate how challenging coaching can be applied in a group context to build teams that can achieve remarkable results
Initially I considered doing a research paper on challenging coaching, but in a review of the available information Challenging Coaching (Blakey, Day 2012) seems to be the primary reference. Therefore, instead of summarizing material contained in that title, I have opted to describe how I have applied challenging coaching in practice in a group and team coaching scenario.
Who are the main players in this case study
The main players in this case study are a group of 4th year college students who joined Perficient China’s award winning internship program, a program we refer to as Boot Camp. We have conducted Boot Camps 20 times since the inception of the program in 2008. The program is ongoing. For this case study we will look specifically at Boot Camp 15.
Boot Camp 15 was comprised of 20 interns. Consistent with the principles of Scrum (self-organizing teams) and the coaching belief that individuals have answers to their own problems, the larger group self-organized into 4 smaller groups.
Coaching was provided at the group, team, and individual levels.
What is the core problem or challenge you applied your coaching skills to?
Like most Information Technology companies in China, Perficient’s China Global Delivery Center (GDC) is challenged by high employee turnover. This is a significant issue since employees are the most valuable asset in knowledge-work organizations and developing qualified consultants is expensive and time consuming. Continuing turnover brings the risk of not having skilled consultants to effectively deliver to our client’s needs.
High turnover has been a consistent challenge to IT organizations throughout the 22 years I’ve been working in China. Direct answers to the problem, offering ever increasing levels of compensation and growth opportunities, may not be sustainable, however the consistency of the problem allows us to build structures to help mitigate the issue.
Our Boot Camp program is one response to this problem. By engaging students during their 4th year of university in our internship program we are able to identify and develop individuals that are personally and professionally aligned with our organizational goals. The program builds their capability as consultants by having them practice key technical, social and soft skills required to be successful. By developing solid consultants, we are able to backfill vacancies with individuals who have the requisite knowledge and skills, significantly reducing the impact of turn-over.
Boot Camp is an intensive program. It involves formal classroom instruction, practice labs, and the implementation of a software system all occurring in parallel in a program that spans 8 weeks.
All Boot Camp structures are supported by coaching at the individual, team, and group level.
What specific coaching skills or approach did you use in this case?
Powerful questions and power listening are at the core of all coaching. With these coaching skills at the core, the FACTS model (Feedback, Accountability, Courageous Goals, Tension, and Systems Thinking) (Blakey and Day, 2012) was applied to bring a group of disparate individuals together to form cohesive teams that were able to create team-level goals aligned with the overall program objectives of developing a mobile enabled IT Warehouse application.
Explain your process in detail
Coaching begins as we’re identifying people to join our program. During the interview process we ask powerful questions related to the individual’s career goals and values. Interestingly it’s not uncommon for this to be the first time that college students, at least here in China, have been ask these types of questions. Through introspection around the powerful questions they discover much about themselves during the interview process, and a number of them self-select to consider other options including other career options. Through powerful questions we’re able to establish initial alignment between individuals’ value and objectives and our organizational needs.
Our organizational culture is well aligned with the coaching belief that individuals are capable and have latent potential waiting to be released. With this in mind we endeavor to offer our team members an environment where they can stretch, sometimes uncomfortably, to realize this potential. The Boot Camp model is designed around this belief. Applying the concepts of challenging coaching we are able to deepen learning and forward action at individual, team, group, and organizational levels resulting in remarkable high levels of performance.
The FACTS model, like any good coaching model, should be something that is flexible and broadly applicable without imposing a strict structure. In the paragraphs that follow I will describe the application of the FACTS model in the sequence the acronym presents, however it is important to note that in practice the model isn’t applied sequentially. Instead various aspects of the model are applied in context and in the moment.
The Boot Camp program provides many channels of feedback. We can separate these at large into two categories: process feedback and coaching feedback.
The Boot Camps make use of the Scrum framework in their development of the system. Scrum emphasizes feedback through a variety of feedback loops that are included in its core ceremonies, namely the Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective meetings. In Sprint Planning the feedback focuses on gathering the necessary information for the team to make a commitment to the work they will deliver in the upcoming Sprint. They typically break the work down into more granular items that can be tracked on a finite (daily) basis. With their commitment in hand the team sets itself to work and each day conducts a Daily Scrum. The Daily Scrum is structured around 3 questions:
- What did I get done yesterday?
- What will I get done today?
- Do I have any impediments?
The first two of these three questions provide objective feedback on a daily basis that provides granular tracking around the team’s progress against its commitment.
At the end of a Sprint a Sprint Review will be conducted. In this ceremony there are two levels of feedback, the first being clarity around whether or not the development team delivered to their commitment – i.e. what they committed to is either done or it isn’t – and the second being feedback provided by the stakeholders related to the applicability of what has been provided to their context (also related to Systems Thinking below).
Finally, the team conducts a Sprint Retrospective, where they establish process specific enhancement objectives and subsequently review their progress in having achieved these objectives.
In addition to the process-centric feedback loops there is also coaching-centric feedback. Through careful observation and objective feedback focused on “’bite,’ creating insight, deliver a new perspective, and cause a step change”. (Blakey, Day 2012). The feedback should direct and fact based, with awareness of identity issues (coach’s agenda vs. client agenda) and an openness to share their observations.
The Scrum framework used in our Boot Camps encourages team and individual accountability. At the team level there is a commitment to deliver a high quality product increment that they have identified during the Sprint Planning meeting and at the individual level there is a commitment to deliver on a subset of that work (What will I get done today?) on a daily basis. Both the Sprint Review and Daily Scrum provide high levels of objective feedback (transparency) into whether or not the individuals and the team have met their commitment.
Accountability isn’t blame. There are be times where individuals a team fails to meet their commitment. The accountability remains with the individual or the team, and the results of failing to are inspected in the context of what Blakey and Day refer to as the laboratory of learning. Here, the objective of accountability is not to cast blame, but rather to understand the reality of the situation and, from the Scrum perspective, how we can improve such that the same issue is unlikely to impede us again in the future.
Relative to accountability the coach needs to have worked to establish a good level of trust so that they can challenge without the client being inclined to withdraw or feel judged.
… transformative goal setting is appropriate in an age when an incremental, linear path may no longer serve leadership needs. (Blakey, Day 2012).
Blakey and Day suggest that while traditional goal setting using models such as SMART or PRISM are intellectually sound approaches that they fail to engage components of the heart and spirit that are often characteristic of our most profound achievements. (Blakey, Day 2012).
As might be clear from the name of the Boot Camp program, one of the underlying principals is to establish an esprit de corps that allows the disparate individuals to come together to form cohesive and productive teams. In the military this is accomplished through boot camps, where solders are drilled such that they have a common platform and learn to collaborate with one another knowing that relative to one another “I’ve got your back.”
We apply this same principal, creating an environment that shifts behavior from individual performance, as is instilled and valued by educational institutions, towards teamwork and collaboration, which is valued in knowledge based project work.
Courageous goal setting encourages goals with the characteristics of excitement, fear, inspiration, imagination, wonder, and adventure. Some of these come naturally; for example, for individuals transitioning from school into the workforce there is some natural excitement, fear, and adventure. Other aspects such inspiration, imagination, and wonder are things that are fostered by providing only a high level vision for the project along with expectations that the group will figure out, largely on their own, how to move the project from vision to reality. As the groups form into teams and the teams decide how they will collaborate – setting up appropriate team contracts and norms – at both the inter- and intra-team level, they also work to establish project level and weekly (Sprint) goals around the project and the process. Powerful questioning along with the environment allows courageous goals to be established.
Many people are surprised when I share that we’re able to introduce interns or fresh graduates to a self-organizing environment and for them to be successful, but in our experience the latent potential of individuals structured around a clear vision and supported by challenging coaching enables establishment of courageous goals which the teams not only meet, but in some cases outperform. The result is qualified, high performing individuals and teams.
There are a variety of factors that introduce tension within this program. Notably the group are being challenged to learn new techniques and technology and apply them within a practical project delivery context under very tight time constraints. The most common and fundamental reflection of tension within the Scrum framework is the relationship between the product owner (customer) and the development team. The product owner is responsible for the return on investment for the product, and therefore wants to have as much done as possible as quickly as possible. The development team is responsible developing the product, and while being pushed by the product owner to deliver more also need to push back to assure that they are delivering a high quality product that they can continue developing upon indefinitely.
Within the context of Boot Camp these tensions result in establishing an environment that allows for what Blakey and Day (2012) refer to as the “loving boot”, a context where high performance is achieved by placing the group (teams and individuals) in a position where the challenge is high and support is also high. The project itself, requiring the rapid acquisition of new technical and social skills and delivering a functioning product in a constrained time-box, produces the high challenge. The high support structure comes from the coaching provided throughout the project. The coach is always near the team; observing, providing feedback, and asking the team powerful questions to help them deepen their learning and forward their actions throughout the development process.
This combination of high challenge and high support help produce an optimal environment for learning and high performance.
A systems thinking perspective sees everything as connected. In the IT context, the concept of a system has special meaning, often interpreted in a much narrower sense and without respect to the social context in which the system exists. This constrained way of thinking often results in suboptimal development – where a product may meet a specific set of needs identified initially but which may not have considered broader needs or may have become obsoleted as the dynamic system in which the product is to be deployed has changed as the product is being developed – and localized optimization – where the results of one team are optimized in detriment to the results of other teams or other parts of the organization.
Within the context of Boot Camp, the group is presented with a high level IT system that they are responsible for building. This is presented through an overall vision, in the case of Boot Camp 15 the development of a mobile-enabled IT asset tracking system, and a high level list of features to be included in the product. In the absence of detailed requirements, the development team is challenged to find other means of understanding the system. Agile development encourages this happen through face-to-face interactions.
Effective coaching in this area helps create a paradigm shift where the development team realizes the larger system, including the social system, that is the overall context in which the product they are building will be applied.
What were the results of your process? Was your coaching/program effective? Why? Why not?
Boot Camp 15 was a very successful. The teams delivered three application instances using technologies and a delivery approach completely foreign to them at the onset of the program. As a large group, as smaller teams, and as individuals they outperformed; exceeding both organizational and individual expectations.
Through challenging coaching, with its foundation in the FACTS model, the group was able to effectively self-organize to form teams and establish courageous goals to which they held themselves accountable. Transparency from a variety of support structures including Daily Scrums, automated testing and continuous integration, and Sprint Reviews resulted in objective feedback that enhanced the team’s understanding of their current progress. Healthy tension and a systems thinking view that realized the effective integration of both the software application produced and also the cross-team support resulted in measurable and meaningful success.
At the individual level, the opportunity to work across a variety of technologies and roles, including interim leadership roles, as well as individual coaching (career and life coaching) resulted in rapid personal and professional growth.
Perhaps more significant than the successful delivery of the IT Warehouse is the continuing success of the members of the Boot Camp 15 team. Subsequent to Boot Camp members of the group have formally joined Proficient and been successful in a variety of other projects. One notable example is that in several cases these new employees have ended up in a primary delivery role, with perhaps only one or two of them on a project, working alone, or in two cases the Boot Camp 15 graduate leading a small team in full scope delivery of a project. In the case of this remarkable group all of these endeavors have been successful; a result that underlines the efficacy of both the individuals and the underlying structure that supported their development.
If you could approach this problem again, what would you do differently?
Boot Camp is an ongoing program. Subsequent to Boot Camp 15 we have conducted 5 more Boot Camps and the program continues to evolve. It is through this evolution that the importance of the core concepts of the challenging coaching model have become apparent to us. By creating an environment where individuals are challenged and supported we establish the platform for high performance.
Our experience indicates creating an environment where challenge is high is relatively simple. In the IT industry technology evolves continuously and there is seemingly unlimited demand for products; so establishing a program that challenges individuals to learn new things and constraining that within a tight delivery timeframe readily supply the challenge.
The more interesting and difficult challenge is the support side of the challenge/support matrix. This is where coaching comes into play, and is the area of Boot Camp 15 where
What are the top 3 things you learnt from this experience?
- The challenge/support matrix introduced in the Coaching Challenge is an excellent model to facilitate the development of high performing teams. While the challenge side of the matrix is relatively easy to put in place the support side is much more challenging. It is only when both of these dimensions are brought together, however, that high performance is effectively realized.
- Effective coaching contributes significantly to program success and individual development. In the case of our Boot Camps, and Boot Camp 15 as a specific example, we are able to bring together disparate individuals to form teams who are able to work together effectively. Through the application of challenging coaching the team were able to deliver well beyond their own expectations.
- The combination of a reference model, in this case the Challenging Coaching FACTS model, coupled with strong general coaching skills are essential tools for the coach. For our program to continue to evolve in effectiveness we need to continue to develop deeper and stronger coaching skills within our organization.