How I Get Them To Do What I Want

A little more on coaching theory today…

Folks ask me a lot of questions whose fundamental focus could be expressed as "how do you get them to do what you want them to do?" so. Here goes. I hereby reveal my entire competitive advantage as a professional coach, by telling you my special secret for how I get them to do what I want them to do.

I don’t. I don’t get them to do what I want them to do. I get them to do what they want to do themselves.

That sounds weird, maybe a little zen-like, I spoze. "what is the sound of the one hand getting them to do what it wants them to do?" but I don’t really mean anything very mystical by it. It connects back to the always-small-always-improve thing we’ve talked about before.

A common way to express these problems is to talk about horses and water, "You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink."

(Tickled memory: the algonquin round table wits use to play "use this word in a sentence" as one of their punning games. I think it was Dorothy Parker who used "horticulture" in a sentence this way. "You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.")

Here’s the thing about horses and water. Horses like water. They drink it all the time. They drink it because they’re thirsty, and because it tastes or smells good, because it cools them, and it heals them, and prolly other reasons I don’t even know. When a horse doesn’t drink water, what does that mean? Well, it could mean a bunch of things, some pretty scary, but I could collapse those into one vague hand-wave: it isn’t drinking this water just now because it does not want this water just now.

Well, if I only get horses to drink when they want to, how do I even do my job at all? I mean, the whole point of getting hired to be a coach is to get horses to drink the software development modern synthesis water.

I do my job by hanging around and/or pitching in, with really good water right in my hands in just the right portions with just the right flavor. When the people i’m with are thirsty, I give them water.

And the more I manage to pull this off, the more they come to expect me to be the kinda person who gives out good water. Some of them come very quickly not only to enjoy my water but to want to know where I keep getting it from, so they can get it when i’m not standing around.

As water-bearer’s, software development coaches do have certain advantages.

  • First, the water these folks have right now is insufficient or gross-tasting or both. I do know folks who work w/high-functioning teams in environments that crackle with energy & hope and embrace both learning & change with vigor. But that’s actually pretty rare in the trade.
  • Second, we are usually invited in for the express purpose of coaching. They don’t know how to do it themselves, someone thinks it needs doing, and they ask us to come help.

    > Note: Not *everyone* in an org thinks it needs doing. 🙂 but usually the someone who hires me packs some weight, and my victims have the general idea that they’re supposed to attend to me a little. As it happens, I turn out to not be just another boss-y guy, and I turn out to be occasionally useful, so I get the *good* part of being hired by a heavy without the *bad* part. By and large.

  • Third, as coaches we are not responsible for all the things these teams are held responsible for, which gives us lots of time to work on preparing water and watching for thirst.
  • Fourth, we generally have far broader experience in water-procurement than our teams do. I know a lot of ways to get water. I know a lot of different ways to flavor water. I know a lot of kinds of thirsty.

So, let’s back away from this water metaphor thing for a minute.

Advice: develop a catalog of "better-than-this" changes. The job is not to install the one best way to make software. (there is no one best way, but that’s for another day.) the job is to make things better. And even a little better is better.

Advice: focus in the beginning on small owwies that they agree are owwies. It’s both doing your job, making things better, and it’s generating "capital" you can use later for larger owwies or owwies they don’t yet know they have.

Advice: collaborate with them. "coach" is not a synonym for "boss" or "teacher" or even "expert". Work on your collaboration skills more than any other thing.

Advice: be kind to the victims and kind to yourself. Forgive both parties as often as you can. Neither you nor they can always be open, strong, decent, right, or fast. In the AA rooms, we say, "time takes time". Patience is one of your most important resources.

Advice: look out especially for the times when they want to do something you also want them to do, and be ready with a small concrete step that will pay them back quickly.

Anyway, that’s what I got. How do I get them to do what I want them to do? I don’t. I get them to do what they want to do.

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