A Coaching Power Tool Created by Damon Poole
(Business Coach, UNITED STATES)
The goal of coaching is to assist the coachee to move forward in some way, either by helping the coachee have an insight or stimulating their imagination, opening new possibilities for direct action by the coachee. Sometimes the coachee removes themselves from the situation, thinking of actions that others should take to effect change. They might say something like “Somebody needs to talk to the product owner about making the user stories smaller.”
An Agile Coach (let’s call him Joe) that was one of a group of Agile Coaches involved in planning a large event felt that the way leadership wanted the event run was problematic. Joe brought his situation to coaching. During the coaching session, Joe focused on the situation but avoided discussing any possible actions that he could take. He talked about how leadership didn’t understand the role of the Agile Coaches and that the other Agile Coaches weren’t seeing the big picture. He talked about what leadership and the other Agile Coaches should do differently. At no point did he talk about actions that he could take. Joe had made the situation impersonal, a problem that others have and need to deal with.
There are many reasons that a person might remove themselves from a situation. It may be they don’t see any possibility of themselves taking the action they see as necessary. It may be they don’t feel comfortable taking the action. Or, they may use the word “somebody” but mean themselves. Even if they do mean themselves when they say “somebody,” it makes sense to clarify what they mean to make sure they are intending to take definite action.
In any case, a coach can only coach whoever is present. If the coachee has removed themselves from the situation, we need to find a way to help them shift their perspective back to themselves. We call this “Personalizing.” Here are some ideas for personalizing; nudging the focus back to the coachee:
“I hear you saying ‘they ought to.’ What might be your role in making that happen?”
“I heard you say ‘we should.’ What might be your part in that?”
Our principle here is:
We can only coach the people we are directly interacting with. Focus on the coachees in the session and what the coachees in the session can do.
If the coachee does not shift to a more involved role in taking action, there is likely something deeper going on and it is too early to look for the next steps. When you hear the coachee use words similar to the ones below, consider personalizing:
Applying Personalizing to a Team
Just as with individuals, the team may talk about action items that “someone” needs to take or that should be done “sometime.” An action item isn’t an action item until it is something that the team is excited and motivated to do, that one or more members of the team will be taking direct action on, and there is a timeframe associated with it.
If the team is talking about actions that they wish other people would take, you can use the same questions with the team that you would use with an individual, such as “What will be your role in making that happen?”
Just as it can be useful to help the coachee shift from a bystander of a potential solution to active participants, it can also be helpful for the coachee to use the perspective of a bystander when exploring possibilities. When the coachee seems uncomfortable with some aspect of an issue, helping her consider the issue from a bystander’s perspective may help. It may be easier for her to think about potential paths forward that someone could take without it necessarily being her. Once there are paths forward that someone could take, then the coachee can look for ways to take an active role in the solution. Here is an example:
Coachee: [developer]: “We keep getting many more stories forced into the backlog against our wishes than we can reasonably do in an iteration.”
Coach: “How might you be able to change the situation?”
Coachee: “There’s nothing that I can do.”
Coach: “Regardless of who does it, what do you think needs to happen?”
Coachee: “Well, somebody needs to talk to the Product Owner and make it clear that their overstuffing the backlog is killing our morale and the team is getting less done as a result.”
Perhaps the coachee was thinking of this option but didn’t mention it because she isn’t comfortable confronting the Product Owner. Now that we know what the coachee sees as a solution, the question is what is she willing to do to make it happen? This has now become a matter of personalizing the solution:
Coach: “And what might you be able to do to bring that about?”
Coachee: “There’s no way I would do that, I don’t get along well with the Product Owner. [Thinks for a moment]. But my manager has a good relationship with him. I’ll bet if I made a good case for sticking with our actual team capacity my manager would take a crack at convincing the Product Owner.”
Hesitation can often be a signal that the coachee is not comfortable taking action themselves. If you sense hesitation when you ask for the next steps, timeframe, or accountability, consider it a signal that the coachee isn’t comfortable with some aspect of their plan and needs to continue exploring possibilities. Share your thought with them while also acknowledging the progress they have made. For instance, you might say, “You’ve made progress on figuring this out. I also sense some hesitation here, what do you think?”
Real Next Steps
When talking about the next steps, check if the next steps the coachee mentions are real next steps. Real next steps include the word “I” and a definite timeframe. Here are some examples of real next steps:
“I’ll go talk to the product owner about this issue this afternoon.”
“Each report will take me a couple of hours; I should be able to fit at least one of those in by the end of the week.”
“I will talk to the scrum master about that the next time I see them. I usually see them 2-3 times a week, so it shouldn’t be an issue.”
All of the above statements enable follow-up within a given timeframe and there is an action that is expected to have happened within that timeframe.
Beware of fake next steps. Fake next steps are next steps that sound like real ones, but they don’t involve the coachees and/or they don’t involve a definite timeframe. Here are examples of fake next steps:
“The organization needs to hire more Scrum Masters”
“The product owner needs to spend more time with the team”
“I’ll talk to the developer when I have some free time”
The first two statements include the next steps, but these next steps are for someone else, not the coachee. Real next steps specify what the coachee herself intends to do. The third statement includes the word “I”, but no specific time frame. If the coachee had used the words “over the next two weeks” rather than “when I have some free time”, the third statement would have been a real next step too. When you hear fake next steps, further exploration may be needed before moving to plan.
Balancing Personalizing vs De-personalizing
There is a spectrum between “I will do this as my top priority” and “somebody needs to do this eventually.” Use what the coachee is saying to gauge where they are on this spectrum at a given moment and use that information to decide if it might make sense to try for more personalizing or more de-personalizing. And of course, it is always best to raise the coachee’s awareness of where you see them on that spectrum so that they can decide what to do with that awareness.
A Coaching Example Continued
Back in the case of Joe, his coach first used depersonalizing, asking Joe “Regardless of who does it, what needs to be done?” Joe replied, “Somebody needs to bring these issues to leadership to see what ideas they have for addressing them or the PI planning session is going to be a disaster.” His coach then asked him “who might do that?” Joe replied, “I think it should be Prasad because he has the best relationship with leadership.” Joe’s coach then used personalizing by asking, “And what might you do to make that happen?” Joe thought for a moment and then said, “Actually, he’s my mentor. He’s really easy to talk to. I’ll send him a meeting request right after this.”
- How might you use personalizing and de-personalizing in a situation you are currently facing?
- To what degree do you think of actions that need to be taken by somebody versus actions that you can take personally?
Pick a day to try this all day long. Set an intention to look for the keywords listed above, such as “I” and “somebody”. Look for the keywords in what you say and in what others say. You don’t have to act on it, just raising your awareness of how often these words are used is a good first step.