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When to coach, when to agitate?

February 17, 20174 min read

When to coach, when to agitate?

At some point (many points, really) in every organisational transformation, those who understand what needs to be done to successfully change the company come up against a choice — to coach somebody through a change or to agitate such that they come up with new solutions on their own. One of the hardest parts of assisting others through a transformation is understanding when to use the gentle approach and when to use the traumatic one.

Good coaching is an almost ideal solution. It works by simple questioning, listening, and helping the coachee figure out a solution for themselves that works for them, in their given circumstances. The end result is that they own the solution they’ve come up with, and they’ve thought through the options, weighed the pros and cons, and decided this is the best they know how to do at the current time. The main downside is that it’s time-consuming — you can’t simply hand someone a coaching answer, they have to figure out the twists and turns for themselves, with the coach’s help.

But what about those times when they have no time to get to a workable answer? Or worse, they have no foundation of knowledge to use to come up with a solution? At that point, asking questions only leads to frustration, and often anger. A different approach is needed here.

Transformation is hard. In order for it to have a lasting effect, it has to change more than people’s behaviour, it has to change their assumptions about why they do the things they do. People make decisions based on their assumptions about what’s valuable, what’s real, what’s worthwhile, and what will be rewarding (or rewarded). If you want them to do different things, these assumptions have to first be surfaced, and then questioned.

When there is no existing knowledge of what alternatives would look like, and no time to develop that knowledge, coaching is a poor choice. Instead, something more dramatic is often required — some thing that will challenge assumptions people didn’t know they held, forcing them to confront them.

An example of these assumptions comes from a conversation I had with a client about metrics. They had started gathering metrics that were automatically generated by some of the tools they were using. They were aggregating them, and then passing them up the chain. They had assumed that their manager was interested in the low-level metrics (which he had reinforced by asking questions about them and asking for tweaks to be made to them). However, they had never stopped to ask whether the metrics they were using were valuable. If you put measurements in front of somebody, they’ll often analyse the measurements, but they will rarely ask if they’re the right measurements, or whether these things are even worth measuring. However, due to their manager’s engagement, they believed they were doing the right thing, and weren’t interested in views that conflicted with theirs. They had no framework for change, or to even see that change was valuable. Coaching was not helpful here (though it was tried, first). Instead, it became apparent that the only hope for change was to get them to expose the assumptions they were making about metrics, so we could question whether they were valuable.

Exposing the assumptions required a combination of probing questions (What value does this metric provide? How can you tell whether the metric you’ve chosen actually has the impact you say it does? What are the possible unintended consequences of drawing attention to this thing? What value is your manager getting out of these metrics) as well as drawing attention to the contradictions between the metrics being captured and the strategy being executed by the same manager. Interestingly, we got agreement in the room about using a different, customer-centric approach to metrics, as well as running experiments about what behaviour was being driven, but when we summarised the results of the meeting, and suggested changes, later, we were met with agitated pushback. We had asked the necessary questions, and exposed the underlying assumptions, but reached a point where there was nothing more we could do, at the time. We made a conscious choice not to further explore metrics, and to let the client continue to do what they were doing, with no input from us. Over the next few months, we saw something curious. Some of the people who had been in the room started asking new questions, and asking us for help. We hadn’t immediately solved what we saw as a problem, but by agitating, and providing a new way of thinking about metrics (customer-centric instead of manager-centric), we had laid the groundwork for future conversations and changes in thinking. (The jury is still out on whether this was the ‘correct’ way to go about tackling this situation.)

Forcing people to confront their assumptions doesn’t always work. In my experience, it is less likely to work than coaching, if for no other reason than because it causes cognitive dissonance, and the brain often resolves cognitive dissonance by dismissing new information. However, it does have a place in any transformation. Don’t be afraid of causing friction, chaos, or disruption as part of a transformation. They’re often necessary. But it’s important to know when something else is likely to work better, as chaos often comes with a cost that we fail to anticipate before causing it.

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