What’s Coaching?

I’ve been mulling over what I do as a coach, for lo these many years, actually, and I feel like sharing some of it.

I coach: I create or exploit openings through which individuals, including sometimes myself, can step closer to who they wish they were.

I came to coaching early on in the movement. I was already a teacher and tended to be a leader in teams. I glommed onto XP immediately, and just as immediately started promulgating it in my teams. The word ‘coach’ appeared a little later, and I took it for my label.

It was years before I came to this present definition of what I do. I spent a lot of time thinking I was doing something different. You’ll notice right away some words & ideas that are missing in my definition but present in most. That’s not an accident.

Where is "agile" in there, for instance?
Well. I don’t think of myself as an agile coach. I think of myself as a coach.

Obviously, trivially, my background is rich in a variety of agile or near-agile traditions, techniques, and attitudes. I doubt it’s possible for me to think about any problem nowadays without bringing that background to bear.

But I suspect you already know that I am sharply opposed to characterizing agility as a system of pre-defined practices that "just works". And I don’t affiliate myself with agility because the agile movement is chock-a-block with people who do think of it as a system.

I neither have a system nor am willing to pretend to having one. I wish more folks agreed.

What about other aspects people routinely associate with coaching? For instance, many people think that coaches "change people". I don’t change people. People change — if they do change — in response to a whole complex of factors. I am neither necessary nor sufficient to cause change in other people. Or for that matter, myself. It’s another geepaw weirdness, I know, this belief that we are rather less in charge of the world or ourselves than we like to pretend.

When I do create or exploit openings, the openings tend to be very small, and very opportunistic, and only suited to one person or two. And I don’t so much change them as the opening changes them, in combination with all those other factors neither of us has control over.

And what’s this "who they wish they were" crap?
My experience is that nearly everyone I work with or near has in their minds an imaginary person. That person is just like them except not. Just like me, only kinder. Just like me, only smarter. Just like me, and so on. That person is our vision of our better self.

My coaching is about people getting closer to their own better selves.

It makes me sound like some kind of therapist, doesn’t it? I’ve had the charge leveled at me more than once. It comes with a whole bunch of rhetorical flavor, that charge, and wrapped in a bacon of faux-rationalist assumption.

How insulting, to be compared to someone whose job it is to help people in pain! I’m always mortified someone would think that of me.

In that charge, of "therapy", rest gigantic misunderstandings about the world, each one an epic muse of its own. Most of my interlocutors are steeped in naive-rationalist theory from early 20th century management texts. Their source literature is riddled with idols of the schema: easily drawn diagrams with simple logic, all refuted daily all over the world. A large part of the openings I manage to create relate directly to shifting that gigantic mass of purest bullshit.

It’s no one statement or concept. It’s a great complex of them. I have a very hard time getting at them sometimes, but will throw a few out.

  1. the idea that people don’t like to work.
  2. the idea that happiness & community are in opposition to efficiency.
  3. the idea that any important set of human behaviors can be captured in an algorithm-like system of rules.
  4. the idea that we live best by living in fear of consequences.
  5. the idea that if-then rewards & punishments are an effective way to manage highly technical & highly creative people.
  6. the idea that non-linear correlation between prediction & result can be fixed by spending more time on prediction.

And so on, and so forth, ad nauseum. These are some of the things I routinely subvert in those openings.

But back to the topic at hand. What, then, is the result of me coming to live with a team and playing my little coaching game?

Sometimes, nothing much. I resent and distrust anyone who could claim otherwise.

A great deal of what I do w/teams involves "chemistry". A little charm. A little luck. A little technique. As I say, nothing always works. But it often does, and when it does, well, look out world.

Teams composed of people who are becoming more like who they wish they were are teams that are on fire with energy & ideas. This is not mystical — or no more so than any well-understood aspect of nature — but practical, immensely so.

I’m not a non-profit, & the majority of my teams don’t work for non-profits, either, but no matter, because what I do helps teams light up. And a lit-up team is dramatically more productive, harder working, more creative, and in no way coincidentally, happier than one that isn’t.

And maybe that’s the crux of it.

The old way sees happiness as at best an irrelevant side-effect with minor impact. I see, and I theorize, and I have both data & anecdote, that points causality in exactly the opposite direction.

The health of the team precedes its success. I believe this absolutely.

So that’s about it. I can characterize my coaching in lots of different ways, and at lots of different levels. But sometimes I think we miss out on some really critical stuff when we ignore this particular viewpoint & level of discussion. Our desire to sell. Our desire to simplify. Our desire to package and systematize. These are not evil impulses. But they can mislead.

Coaching is finding out what people wish was better about themselves & offering tiny steps in that direction. For me, not more, not less.

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