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What Type of Coach Does a Software Development Team Need?

Workplace Coaching

What comes to your mind when I say the word “Coach”? Is it a big, burly man with a baseball cap—at the ready to give you a command? Because that’s what I think of. But, as I was reminded by Jamie Parker with Process + Results Leadership Coaching at the Iowa Lean Consortium Fall Conference last month, that’s not the kind of coach our workplace teams need.

In the same way the stereotypical coach can help athletes achieve what they didn’t think was physically possible, a good workplace coach will help their team achieve what they didn’t think was mentally possible. And, with the nature of our work, it’s all in our brains.

So, how do we help our teams flex their mental muscle? There are a lot of ways to do it—some better than others. Here’s an example…

One of your team members shares that they are frustrated by the number of interruptions they experience in a given day. It’s causing them to either work late hours or not get their work done. In response to these frustrations, a good workplace coach would:

  1. Tell them to turn off their email and instant messaging notifications.
  2. Ask them to explain the types of interruptions they experience.
  3. Ask open-ended questions to continue the thought process, like, “What have you tried?” or “What do you think is causing that?”

Let’s break down each of these responses.

Tell them to turn off their email and instant messaging notifications. This is probably the response closest to what you would get from that stereotypical coach mentioned above. And, honestly, it’s the response I currently align with most closely. When you have a solution in mind, it’s hard not to share it. By providing a solution, though, you’re robbing them of the opportunity to problem-solve on their own. Sure, holding back your opinion about the proper solution robs you of an immediate dopamine rush, but it will pay dividends down the road.

Ask them to explain the types of interruptions they experience. This is where Jamie really blew my mind. She explained that when you go to a doctor, they ask you questions so they can diagnose the problem and prescribe the solution. So, when you ask questions like this about symptoms, you are diagnosing the issue for your team member and possibly leading them to the solution you have in your mind. If this is how you respond to team members, you may find yourself being asked to “diagnose” every problem as it arises.

Ask open-ended questions to continue the thought process, like, “What have you tried?” or “What do you think is causing that?” And when you think you are out of questions, simply ask “What else?” Try to stay away from “Why…” questions since they typically lead to diagnosing the problem or inadvertently placing blame. Your team member is smart—they just don’t see the solution yet. But, they may find it through questions like this. So many problems can be solved just by giving someone the space to think and talk out loud. Asking questions that get them to talk it through will help.

Your team member may solve their problem through this process, but you should be prepared for them to do nothing about the frustration or challenge they are facing. Just as some people don’t want to run a marathon, and therefore can’t be coached to do it—some people decide the problem they are dealing with is just not worth fixing. And you can’t coach them into fixing it if they don’t want to. There are also times when people just need to vent and aren’t actually looking for a solution.

So, what is something you could do differently to help your team? And, if you change that one thing, what will the impact be? On the other hand, what is the implication if you change nothing?

If you want to learn more about how to become a better coach, I recommend The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier.

Now, drop and give me 20! 

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