While working at into consulting last year, I had the chance to work, among others, with Luciano Garagna, a guru in Project Management and coaching, on an e-book related to learning, coaching, and competence development.
I know coaching as a term is nowadays interpreted in very different ways according to who you ask to, to me a coach is simply someone who helps you unleash your full potential (in any area of your life)…
Here’s a brief summary of the e-book (freely available here):
Traditional coaching focuses on specific objectives, to be agreed at the beginning of the coaching relationship. The proposed approach is based on adapting to the needs of the person being coached, as they evolve during the coaching process. For example, one meeting could be dedicated to the preparation of an impending steering committee, while the next session could focus on selecting the right team member between a group of candidates. The coach accompanies the less experienced partner when the latter is feeling the most acute need. Learning happens when it’s needed the most and when immediate results can give the confidence required to support the achievement of long-term goals. Coaching is also a great learning opportunity for the coach, who experiences how to lead in a non-directive way that supports the personal and professional growth of the partner.
Great coaches can follow the flow of the coachee and reach their objectives even in a non-structured way. However, before reaching that level of mastery, a coach should structure the session in a way that addresses all the main issues the coachee could have. In order to do so, the G.R.O.W. acronym (developed by John Whitmore) in used:
- Goal: the coach starts the session by clarifying, with questions (see the “asking questions” technique further on), the purpose and the objectives of the session itself. A good question could be: what are your objectives?
- Reality: after the objectives are clear, the coach moves on to help the coachee understand the current reality – what is happening in the present. A good question could be: what is currently happening?
- Options: when the future and the present are clear, the coach addresses the options available to go from where we are to where we want to get. A good question could be: what can you do?
- Will: the coachee commits to some actions, chosen from the identified options. A good question could be: what will you do?
Have a look at the following questions, what is the usefulness of each of them?
- Is the budget of the project on track?
- Should we con”rm the budget as it is, adjust it, or ask for a sponsor’s review?
- How can we cover the budget gap on the shipping?
- What is the objective of this budget analysis?
Depending on the context, each of these questions is useful, but they differ in openness and in level of detail.
The first question is asking for a statement (yes/no) useful to put a stick on the ground. You might find it helpful to create a common ground.
The second question is asking for a choice, focusing on alternatives. It can be valuable to keep the pace of the conversation going when you “nd it slows down and threatens the scheduled agenda.
The third one is an open question with a specific focus. It can be helpful to find solutions in the brainstorming phase of the discussion or when you want to bring down to earth a discussion that is becoming too speculative.
The last question is open and broad. It is extremely useful to move the focus at a higher level when the conversation is going into too much detail.
Putting a question mark is not enough; to make a good question there are many factors to be taken into consideration; in the examples above two fundamental ones for coaching have been highlighted: the openness and the level of detail. Notice that asking questions implies active thinking and that way the question is asked drives the answer! Whatever the content of the discussion, the coach’s goal is to influence the quality of the elaboration.
Like the size of a box must match its content, so the coaching questions need to be shaped in a way which is useful for the answer. Only with experience we can balance all the factors to shape the question.
Guess which of the following are coaching feedback:
- You were great today!
- I liked your presentation!
- Your presentation was very professional.
- The limited number of slides and the fact that you were talking slowly with a strong voice made me feel comfortable and confident that I could understand.
These are all examples of feedback, but they provide the receiver with a different quality of information.
The first example tells you that today you did something (perhaps the presentation or maybe the meeting as a whole) I really liked, but you can’t tell
The second example adds the information that it was the presentation that looked good to me.
The third example adds a definition of how I liked your presentation.
The final example is more specific and describes the feeling I had while sitting in your presentation today.
Now, imagine you are going to present to your top management, which feedback would be most useful to you? The first three may help your self-esteem, but only the fourth contains the precious information you need to consciously change your behavior or deliverable. You may receive a lot of feedback, but how much of it is really helpful and allowing you to improve? Using coaching feedback increases accountability within the team because it provides a broader perspective.
Points of view
Let’s try to put ourselves in the following perspectives:
- The Client
- The Sponsor
- The Deliverer
Managing a project means to aim, perhaps succeed, in satisfying the expectations of the Sponsor that pays for the project, of the Client who will use the deliverables of the project and of the Deliverer who will make the effort required to reach the targets. How often have you seen managers loosing track of one of these sides? It can be really useful to have someone that helps us by challenging our perspective. Pretend you’re involved in the project in a different position (changing roles among Sponsor, Client and Deliverer), from that perspective, a lot of things may look different, so a solution that seems impossible to find may just arise. As a coach, driving this exercise and challenging the different roles is very easy when your point of view is external and provides you with the added value that will look remarkable to your coachee.
Perspective is a key to managing a project. Expectations look so complicated when you analyze them only from your own side, but they may turn quite easy to understand and match together when you move away from your point of view.
Giving help or receiving it with this kind of coaching technique can be very simple, nevertheless the real achievement is to uncover something we didn’t think about and that can switch the light on.
The coaching role
The difference between a coaching session and a useful chat that ends with a piece of advice is that the coach doesn’t know the answer and she is not thinking about one.
Milton Erickson used a powerful anecdote to clarify this concept. He described a runaway horse his father found one day on his way home, he didn’t know to whom it belonged and how to bring it back home. He then realized that as soon as he moved the horse away from grazing the grass and back onto the highway, the horse knew its way home and after quite a few miles it naturally reached its owner. It was enough just to push it back on to the main track and focus its attention on the goal of going back home.
We need to manage the focus of the journey otherwise the delivery will be slowed down. The added value of coaching is to ensure the focus of the discussion with the aim of enhancing the level of quality and effciency.
The challenge in keeping the focus is to recognize when exploring a field is becoming a detour. When we help keep focus, we support someone in building their own solution, plus there is an improvement of their awareness of their role.