“What why how” coaching for skills

I recently wrote an article on coaching where I suggested building a toolkit of different approaches to use when coaching people and teams in different things.

This is my (very basic) tool for teaching a skill – it is called “what why how”.

I use it when I want to help someone develop a specific skill that I am confident I can teach and give feedback on.  For example, running agile meetings or business scoping workshops.

I do not use it when delegating work to someone (though I do use a similar approach)  Nor do I use it when I am problem solving or working on lifting performance and capability generally, without relying on my own expertise or experience.

How it works

This is a feedback based approach. So I begin by agreeing to give someone feedback on something.   It can be something they have never done before, or something people do really well but want to improve in further.

Either they say “Can you help me to do this” or I say “Hey, I think it would be good if you tried this”.  Let’s say I want to show someone to plan workshops.

So lets look at a simplistic example.

Step 1 – explaining what to do

Mack and I agree that I will help him improve his planning of workshops.  But that is very general, so we break things down more specifically:

What we want to do is plan a workshop.  In order to do that there are several things that you need to do.  You need to create an agenda, invite people and cook muffins.

Great, but just saying something needs to be done is unhelpful.  For each step I will explain things as “what – why – how.”

  • What you need to do first is to create an agenda.
    • This is a summary of what will happen in the workshop and in what order.
  • Why is it important?  Well there are a couple of reasons it matters:
    • Everyone else does it and it lets people know what they have to do before they can eat the muffins
    • Not doing it means that people will instantly eat all your muffins and then leave the workshop and you will be lonely
  • How do you do it?  Well this is what I do.
    • I open a previous agenda, change the names and the date and then change the font half way through so that Peter gets annoyed when he notices that the font is changing for no apparent reason.
    • That always gets the workshop off to a fun start.
    • Are you comfortable doing that yourself?

At this point the Mack says yes – he will give it a go. Although he is not entirely sure.

Of course if he said no then I would ask what questions he had and answer them. I might even demonstrate how to do it the first time while Mack watches.

But the more I explain something before people try it for themselves, the harder it is for them to learn it quickly or master it.  So I press people to try something before they are sure and then struggle a bit, before getting help or feedback on where to improve.

Step 2 – They try to do it themselves

Mack said that he is confident creating the agenda.  But he is not really sure about doing the res of the planing.  So we agree that he will create the agenda and then check in before proceeding.

Mack creates an agenda and it is pretty good, though he did not follow my advice about changing the font half way through.  This might be a personal style thing or a mistake.

The important thing though is that he took on the task of creating the agenda himself and then asked me to assess it.

Step 3 – Review

Mack shows me his work.  I could say “awesome” or I could ask him needs improving, but I don’t. instead I give specific feedback on the areas where he hit the mark and the areas where we can find improvements.

I start the review by double checking that we both understood what he was attempting. I always get the student to explain this, since that is actually part of the process.

“OK – so remind me, what were we hoping to achieve again?” I ask

“I was creating an agenda,”  Mack responds

“And why is that important?” I ask

“Really, It is straightforward.  I created an agenda because we agreed I would – and now here it is,” Mack says.

Annoyingly though, I persist.

“What is the agenda going to achieve?” I ask.

“OK, it will stop people eating the muffins and annoy Peter – But I thought it should really be to let people know how the workshop will flow,” says Mack

Clearly there was a slight misunderstanding – I thought this was about annoying Peter, but on reflection, Mack thought it was about planning.

This happens to me quite often, I am not sure if it is because I don’t explain things well enough or if things turn out to be more complicated than expected when people try to apply their learning.

I find this step increases understanding, accountability and ownership.  Anyway, in this case I agree that Mack might be right, and we continue.

“OK, so it will help people understand the flow,” I say, “How did you go about it?

Mack shows me the agenda and walks me through what happened when he tried to create it.

If Mack has any questions then we can go through them one at a time. But he seems to be OK with the process so I review the content.

He has done the basics right, so I tell him that

Good – you got made clear who is coming, how long the session will take and also who is invited.  You have set the expectations well.

But he has also missed a minor point,  The flow timings seem unrealistic and the order he has put things in does not seem to flow.

You have covered the expectations so let’s look at the flow of events.  I see some gaps and confusion in the flow.

What do you think you could do here to help cover the topics you want?

Mack seems a little unsure.

What you can do here is add an introduction so that people can confirm they are happy with the flow and objectives (ie why do it).  For example this is the wording I might use (how to do it).

This is very mechanical and follows the same process:

  • What were you aiming to do?
  • Let’s have a look at what happened.
  • Here is where you hit the mark (specific examples) and why it is good.
  • Here is where you missed the mark or could try something new (specific examples) and why it would be good to improve.
  • Specific advice on what to do with all that – clear suggestions or steps.
  • Agree to what-why-how to do next

Finally we confirm that Mack is happy and has a clear idea of what to do next.

Then we agree to try the agenda again to get more feedback, or we agree to move onto a new skill.  But we focus on one thing at a time so I can give specific, useful feedback.

I am often tempted to give hundreds of suggestions, but that turns out to be less helpful. Instead I find it is better to focus on 1-2 things that they can really focus on at one time.

Step 4 – Repeat the process

Now we start again.  We agree what Mack will work on next, why it is worth doing and how he plans to do it.

Ideally Mack sets all the goals and all the steps.  Ideally I observe what he does in order to give more meaningful first hand feedback and ideally he can focus on one thing at a time.

Generally though, I find that there is a lot going on and the real service that I provide is to remove the noise to allow Mack to find specific, concrete areas he can focus on to grow in whatever the area is.

In summary

In summary, this is what happens:

  • We pick a general area for improvement
  • We break it down into the things that matter most – that lead to good performance
  • We pick one or two to focus on at a time
  • We agree on WHAT needs to be done; WHY it is worth doing; and HOW it can be done
  • Mack tries the task himself
  • I give specific feedback on the WHAT we agreed he would focus on
    • I include feedback on specific things that worked
    • I include feedback on specific things that Mack can improve
    • We agree on what he can do with that feedback
  • We then continue with the same topic or agree it is good enough for now in order to focus on something new
  • We repeat the process

I find this works for simple tasks (such as creating an agenda, using a tool) and things that I can explain in a single session.  It also works well when focused on a mission, task or activity, as long as I understand the task well enough to explain what matters and give useful feedback to someone wanting to improve in it.

It is as simple as it sounds – the hard bit is staying focused on the specific areas that people can learn from.


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