A Coaching Power Tool By Edwin Hanegraaf, Agile Coach, NETHERLANDS
Exploration vs. Advice to Explore Appropriate Solutions
In the agile community, many different roles exist. One of them is the role of Agile Coach, which has no specific protected status and therefore it is unique to the implementation of its beholder. It even does not have to relate to the expectations of the person or company hiring such an Agile Coach.
I am an Agile Coach. And with that, I have concluded that specifically the suggestion of coaching is often missing in the execution of the role and the expectations of the hiring person or company are often different as well. Many Agile Coaches are hired to support a business to implement a specific framework or to train (internally) teams to implement a specific framework. Training, consultation, and moderation can be part of the implementation of an Agile Coach, though the real value can be found in “Promote”, “Encourage” and “Challenge” (see examples of that in “65 Tasks for an agile coach” ), which are all behavioral aspects and for which human interaction approaches like mentoring and coaching are far more effective.
In many environments, the coaching approach is just one of the multiple approaches, the Agile Coach can choose from to fulfill their daily jobs. Where the focus lies here on a certain niche, the challenge of coaching as part of a whole set of services exists in many job areas. It is of importance that such a coach is often chosen based on the knowledge and skillsets, so they understand why what needs to be done and how it can be done. From a client’s, perspective asking to provide the why what, and how seems to be the easiest way forward, since they only have to ask one question, and all the hard work has been done by the “coach”. Nevertheless, concerning learning that has been proven to be less effective as being described in the learning pyramid where the most effective results come from reflection and doing , which is failing in the handover approaches.
By introducing self-exploration on the why, what and how, both the “coach” and client will gain new insights. The coach will understand better what the needs of an organization in their knowledge domain are, and act upon that separately and appropriately. The client will start finding their first own small steps into understanding their knowledge and insights that could be used immediately in their daily jobs.
Chris is the IT manager and has been assigned to the Agile Transition Project, so he hires several Agile Coaches to support him in his journey to transition the IT department towards agility and implementing the Scrum Framework. One of the coaches has convinced him of the need for a two-side approach, so not only bottom-up but top-down as well, so he agrees to have coaching sessions with that coach.
During one of the coaching conversations, the coach asks him what he would do next in getting a better flow in the transition. Chris immediately reflects that he just has hired a lot of expensive coaches to advise him on that matter. Since Chris keeps insisting on this, the coach advises him to start with one team, and expand gradually. Chris is now happy, he walks away and instructs one of the teams to implement Scrum and listen to the coaches in getting it done fast.
This is a good example of what happens a lot in the agile community. Instead of focusing on the intent behind the coaching conversation, the outcome is redirected to others (team), is directive, and does not contain any element of learning for the manager himself. Many coaches even feel the hesitance of going against the flow, since they have been hired by that same manager, this can easily be fired if that manager dislikes the approach.
In this Power Tool  exploration, we will look at the coaching side of the coin. Instead of just advising people how to implement agile, helping people to explore appropriate solutions to implement in an agile way leads far more often to a sustainable outcome.
Explanation Exploration vs. Advice
Exploration is the act of exploring an unfamiliar area and in which the verb exploring the travel through (an unfamiliar area) to learn about it , and has a focus on the internal persona, so the initiative and the willingness to execute comes from yourself and that internal persona is the one deciding to do so. Furthermore, it has the space of curiosity, so the space of learning new things and things you have not been thinking of.
Advice (noun) is guidance or recommendations offered about prudent future actionand has a focus on something delivered from someone to someone.
While waiting for advice our clients tend to hold a wait-and-see approach, so they are not actively listening to themselves or looking for potential solutions. That makes them potentially uncoachable since many awarenesses that could be raised are blocked or ignored. If their wish for advice is not addressed, clients may feel stuck since moving forward is not going to happen. As soon as you as a coach give a piece of advice at that moment in time, so a partial and potential solution of their question, the client might feel empowered about that advice. However, most times it is not explored whether the advice resonates in their context, and taking into action is not explored as well. That often results in rejecting that advice at a later stage, so the learning gets lost.
Within the professional agile coaching community, the act of giving advice is often seen as an ineffective way of helping our clients to solve a problem or a challenge in their context. Cherie Silas, who holds both the ICF-MCCä designation as a coach as well the Scrum Alliance Certified Enterprise Coachä (CEC) and Certified Team Coachä (CTC) designation and is part of the coach review group of this body, explains this “destructive” behavior by stating that “We [coaches] do not need to fix our customers. They are not broken, so they do not need to be fixed”.
Often an important underlying belief is a fear. Fear for the unknown, while changing requires courage to step out of your safety bubble. Fear for being punished if the approach you chose to follow is not the best possible solution or even worse moves away from that. And fear for the opinion of co-workers.
With exploration, the beholder takes an action in actively looking for ideas, insights, solutions from their perspective. It helps our clients to convince themselves with the information that they already hold and feel attracted to, so opens even more space for further exploration. Besides that, the fear aspect emerging from the advice attitude can be explored and addressed as well, creating space for more self-awareness, and getting in more sustainable results.
For exploration, the client will validate the value of it immediately, since the idea emerged from their mind, so whether it resonates and how it could be applied emerges from there as well. Since the client “convinced” himself, this way of creating awareness will often lead to sustainable change. Within the application of mixed practice, additionally, it contains a lot of information for the coach since he can use these insights to offer the client e.g. mentoring or training in a later stage, based on the actual insights the client has. That makes shifting the perspective not only from a coaching stance valuable; it contributes to making the work within a blended practice, e.g. Agile Coaches, more efficient and effective in the other role areas as well.
Exploration vs. Advice in a Coaching Session
Outside a coaching session, you should be very clear on the applicable coaching agreement in all forms of communication, and you may even explicitly invite your client to have a taste of coaching before actually starting to address relevant topics for which advice may be asked.
If your client is confronting you with bouncing back the question or doing that in a more subtle non-verbal way if you see them struggle by moving into your space, it is best to have the question out in the open first. So gently ask about their struggle.
Instead of defending, you should stay in the client space, asking them about what makes them feel to ask you for advice. In that way, you may gently ask for the most probable underlying belief, fear. With that you could acknowledge your client in the powers they have by themselves and invite them to explore those powers:
- I hear you ask me for … (advice); what makes this … (advice) important for you?
- What do you need to answer that question by yourself?
- How is … (advice) helping you in getting the best solution for you?
In the case where the client is not directly openly responding to that to that, you may indicate that you are certainly willing to help them – outside the current session – and that you are curious about the things they already have learned in the past to prevent from duplicating the information they have and offer with that a subtle opening circling back to the exploration.
The separation of concerns – so mixing coaching and providing information – helps us to prevent having an unclear and scattered output or outcome. By gently keeping the focus, and by firmly postponing the wish for advice, the outcome is more likely to become a learning path for the client.
During a coaching session, Chris reflects that he just has hired a lot of expensive coaches to advise him on getting a better flow in the transition. The coach states “I hear you asking for advice, what makes this advice important for you?”. Chris starts explaining that he has no clue how to move forward at this moment in time. And that is followed up with the question “What do you need to be able to move forward?”. By pointing out some actions that can be taken by him, at the end of the coaching session Chris is equipped with some action to become more knowledgeable.
Afterward, Chris discusses his questions with the coaches and learns about some key approaches to move forward on his challenge. Instead of moving the responsibility towards the coaches and the teams, he starts collaborating with the coaches and the teams.
Questions Could Help You in Preparing Exploration vs. Advice
If you are working in comparable positions and you are the expert, the following reflection questions could help you in preparing:
- How do you react if your client is expected and asking for advice?
- What would you do to incorporate the coaching approach?
- How would you deal with a client persistently keeping the advice stance?
 Blog “65 tasks for an agile coach”
 Effectiveness of Learning pyramid
 “We don’t need to fix our customers” (Cherie Silas, ICF-MCCä, Scrum Alliance CECä, CTCä)
 Power Tools in the curriculum of ICA
 Google Dictionary