Coaching when help is not wanted or important

· June 15, 2017

I once was coaching at a team and had a big problem getting their attention and interest. We had many discussions about improvements and I used most of my tools but saw very little change.

It took me quite some time to understand why this was hard, but after a while it stood out like a soar and obvious thumb. And I felt so stupid not seeing that before.

It has to do with purpose and intent.

Help: not needed

One day I was out walking and I thought about the team and why we couldn’t connect with them. Don’t they want my help? I often felt like I was like an old grandma offering advice that was really dated and badly timed. And then it dawned on me:

They never asked for my help

I was sent to this team to “agile coach” but the people in the team and the team leader has not asked me to help them. We had not established a reason for me being there.

Naturally we had not established a goal either - that’s pretty hard without a reason, don’t you think. That meant that I don’t know much about what good or bad looks:

  • When is my work done?
  • What can I do more of to be better / more helpful?
  • What is the end state of the engagement, how is the team constructed and behaving then?

And then I haven’t even talked about how annoying I was for the team.

Me; “How about if we lower our work in process a bit?”

Team: “How about if you let us work for a change?”

It reminds me of a situation that I was in my personal life when I lived in Indonesia. Unwanted help is truly annoying and damaging for the relationship between the parties involved.

Being helped when you don’t want help is a little bit abusive. Like this:

And in this video - I would be the dog.

No skin in the game

Another thing that hit me when I thought about the situation was this:

I’m not held accountable for the improvements I make - I have no skin in the game

At this particular role was a pure coach role. There was another team lead that was accountable for the delivery quality and speed, as well as the well-being of the team members.

I was there to coach. The result of that coaching was nothing that I was held accountable for, nor followed up on. And how could it be? Because if you take out some of the part of the team lead role (as defined above) and give to another, external party, you would create a very strange situation.

Imagine that I was held accountable for lead time in the team and the team lead for the quality and staff well-being. We would now be against each other in our goals. Balancing scores are good but only if one role can more than one score. If I’m optimising for only one of them it would create the pursuit of a local optimum - which is known as a bad thing.

Now I was working without a purpose. There was no goal for me. Nothing I could do more of to come closer to my goal. It doesn’t matter how much Autonomy and Mastery you have if you don’t have a Purpose. Work will feel futile and meaningless pretty fast.

What could I have done differently?

First I need to recognise that I could have done something about this myself. I took many things for granted before I started and there was a lot of hidden assumptions that I didn’t clear out.

  • I could have talked with the team in the outset to define a purpose and goal of my coaching. Defining exit criteria for me would have been a great start, I think.
  • I could probably also have worked out the purpose part with the team lead. Most likely we could not have fixed what I’m measured on but we could have had a better alignment between us.

However both of these points require that the team members actually see or want the help offered. If they did not - I should not have engaged with them to start with. Trying to convince people they need help is a very strange and hard conversation to have.

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