Change the future to change the present

One of the challenges of an agile coach, on the surface, is to get people to behave differently. But why?

There are many reasons that getting people to change the way they behave is hard and there are many solutions. In fact one of the reasons I think that coaches like “Shu Ha Ri” is that is gets people to do what they are told and saves a lot of debate.

However, getting people to change the way they behave is the wrong starting point.

I have been coaching a couple of high performing teams recently and also working with some teams who have real challenges that they want to overcome. These teams are actually fun to coach because they have a goal (to do even better or to stop the world sucking so badly for them).

They are fun to coach, but also relatively easy to coach because they have energy to make a change and what they really want is an outside perspective. The danger for me is not that they will avoid change but that they will start wanting me there to solve problems that they can solve. In fact there is also a danger that I will want to be there solving problems for them.

This led me to thinking though – sometimes it seems like the teams who really need coaching, don’t see a need for it, and the teams who ask for coaching are already on their journey somewhere. For teams that are already on a journey somewhere, the coach can help a lot, but if they disappeared, the teams would still continue on their journey.

So maybe the art of coaching is really to help teams work out what journey they want to be on. This seems like a good starting point but it still leads to some challenges in defining what it means:

  • Sometimes what the organisation expects of the coach is “an improvement in performance” by which they either mean working harder (which is nothing to do with good agile) or getting more throughput, which is related to agile if they throughput is actually adding value.
  • Sometimes the team want nothing much and they are just polite to a new coach, working out how they can help the coach do whatever it is they do. This seems a little backward from a coaching point of view.
  • Sometimes the team want to learn the basics of an agile approach and sometimes they already know that and they want help in improving further.

The last example of what people expect from a coach is probably where you really want to start with coaching any team – defining what you want to achieve. In fact I have even written a whole article on doing that.

But now I want to cover a subtly different topic, this one from the field of Appreciative Inquiry.

The moment we start to ask questions, we are actually prompting change. The questions we ask and the way we ask them actually redirect thinking and thinking leads to action. So asking “how can we cut costs?” or “why do you think the team is so bad at collaboration?”, leads to a different focus to asking “what do we do that really adds value?” or “how do decisions get made here?”.

Taking this further – there is saying in Appreciative Inquiry – Change the future to change the present.

This may seem cryptic but it is actually core to all coaching. The first role of the coach is to help the team work out what they want from coaching. But in fact what they always want is a better future than they would have without the coach.

So defining that better future is where I often start. We end up with a hypothesis like “if we focus our coaching on mentoring scrum masters, we should end up with a capability in the team to …”

That goal gives me a focus for my coaching. But there is more to “change the future to change the present” and it is to do with changing behaviours.

The way people behave is very strongly based on what they think will happen in the future. If they plan to live in a house for the next 10 years, then they are much more likely to buy good furniture and upgrade the house to be more comfortable than they are if they only plan to be there 3 months.

Similarly, if a team believe that management will support them and that the team will have their back when they take risks, then they will probably be more prone to risk taking and experimentation than if they think mistakes will be severely punished by all those around them.

Thus the goal of a coach, on a good day, is to create a vision of what the world can be like and then to invite people to make decisions on the basis that they want to achieve that better world. If we pull that off, then people will change their behaviour. If we do not pull that off and people assume the world will actually not change, then, to be fair, why should they bother to change their behaviour?

Interestingly this also applies to having a bad day. I have worked with many teams who plan to pay off technical debt or plan to start fixing bugs, or plan to work at a sustainable pace etc but don’t have time to do it today. The assumption seems to be that even though they are busy today, things should slow down tomorrow and they will have more time to do things the way they want to.

In fact though the opposite is true – if things are flat out and crazy today, they odds are that tomorrow will be similar. The idea that things will improve might just be a happy daydream.

So on a bad day the coach is the “smasher of dreams”. We are there to terrify those who are feeling optimistic, to shatter dreams and bring a reality check. Maybe that sounds extreme, but at least you might agree that the job of the coach is to clarify the likely cost of continuing on the same path.

Our job is to help people see where they will end up when they do not change. To bring the reality of working with an unstable system or a burnt out team into their consciousness. That way we can agree that it is a bad path.

Then we can ask the team to choose their future – doom and despair or an OK place to work.

Once we change the future, and keep the “new reality” top of mind, then behaviour will be based on moving in that direction and hopefully performance and happiness will follow.

Thus my conclusion is that a core coaching skill is actually to “change the future to change the present.”

Photo by isa bulle on Pexels.com

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