Thoughts on Coaching

I wrote yesterday that I’m not a trainer. I am not a coach either (I am specifically not an Agile coach). And yet I get hired as these two things quite frequently. I’m trying to figure out what it is I actually do, so I’m beginning with elimination, and with questioning the common words we all throw out there to describe our work. Coaching (as I understand it) is a way to support and guide people to become effective, engaged and happy in the context in which they are being coached.

Here’s a story, a tangent… Several years ago my wife (now ex-wife) and I went into marriage guidance counseling/therapy. The therapist had an agenda: to make the marriage work, to help us stay together (my wife had the same agenda). We were in counseling because our relationship was broken. We wanted to mend it, but I don’t know that having a single goal was the best approach. It closed down all other possibilities. A better goal, perhaps, would have been: let’s discover how to be the best co-parents to our children, and build a loving, respectful relationship. It allows for the “make the marriage work” outcome, but it is not bound by it.

My wife and I divorced in 2008. We now co-parent by email. It is horrible. I don’t blame the therapist, of course, but the fixed agenda only served to make all other possibilities unpalatable for my wife. It became an all-or-nothing situation, and ultimately a lose-lose outcome. So what’s my point? 

Agendas. That’s my point. Agendas are restrictive and damaging. The term Agile Coach has a built-in agenda: Do Agile, or Be Agile, or Agile Will Fix Your Organization. This is a bad start. Agile is only one approach to improvement, and depending on how the word is understood, can be more or less limiting. It is always limiting to some degree.

And even more so than training, the term coaching is wildly overused and abused. Organizations now offer coaching certificates, e.g. the Scrum Alliance’s Certified Scrum Coach (CSC), as if having that piece of paper qualifies you to serve well. It doesn’t. And people without that certification are calling themselves coaches too. There is no real distinction in terms of quality. Coaching is the buzz-word of the decade.  

There is a real discipline known as coaching. Here is an invitation to coaching from  New Ventures West, an integral coaching organization:

We invite you to deepen your connection to yourself and others, contribute what you can to the lessening of difficulties, and unfold into the person you can be. Sooner or later life brings events that require us to reexamine who we are, what we’re doing, and why. Personal change—like growing older, shifts in relationship, or job displacement—or societal changes—in politics, economics or technology—can bring us to these moments of reflection. How we listen and respond to this call determines how fulfilled we will be and whether we will make our unique contribution to the world. 

You’ll notice there is no agenda there, nothing about tools, techniques or methodologies. There is no solution, only an opening up of possibilities.

When I go into an organization—to assist, one always hopes, in creating engagement and effectiveness—I don’t know what the organization requires. I do know they are not happy with the way things are. And too often the presenting problem is not the real problem at all. Our work isn’t in offering solutions, it is in helping people see in new ways, to identify those hidden issues that prevent the organization and its people in reaching self-actualization (ref Maslow). How can I do that if I come in with a prescribed solution?

But Agile Coaching aside, I am not a coach as I have never studied coaching, and apart from an introductory workshop I lack a coaching education, so have minimal knowledge of the skills needed to be a coach. Guiding and mentoring teams and individuals is not coaching—it is guiding and mentoring. These are different things. Offering Agile understanding and helping teams implement certain practices is also not coaching, it is advice and suggestion.

I don’t know what term or terms to use to describe my work when I am onsite with a client, but coaching, I know, is the wrong term. It is disingenuous of me to use it, understanding the little I do understand about real coaching, and respecting greatly those individuals I know personally who do this for real.

I am not against coaching. I respect the discipline, and perhaps some day will study it. I am against Agile Coaching, as I believe this is just another cynical, “jump on the band wagon” effort to make lots of money. Agile Coaching is quite likely, in most cases, simply a Coaching Shaped Object.