The Art of Coaching In Scrum — 7 Tips You Can Use Immediately
Coaching is one of the most useful Scrum Masters’ tools. This technique is great for solving individual’s or group’s problems and removing blockers.
Sometimes I hear from Scrum team members — my Scrum Master told us to do this and that, in a directive way, and the subject was not related to the implementation of Scrum framework. In Scrum, a Scrum Master doesn’t decide for a team. He or she initiates a discussion on that topic and uses the art of coaching to facilitate a team’s decision.
When a team decides for itself, the decision feels right and fair to everybody, even to those who didn’t agree initially. Coaching is a simple but powerful framework, just like Scrum.
Often coaching is used incorrectly, though.
I had some coaching attempts with my team before. It looked like that: I got together with each team member separately on a monthly basis and initiated the discussion on their goals for the next month. I was capturing their goals into an online tool myself and asked about their progress the following month. I was like a controlling entity who pushed them to create goals and then checked their implementation. This was all wrong.
To make sure you don’t repeat my mistakes, check out the following tips:
- Listen, don’t form your opinion
How often did you catch yourself on losing track of what the other person was saying? You were listening for a while and then you have dived into a self-talk. You were looking at the person, but thinking about your own things.
When you are coaching someone, you need to be 100% engaged with what your coachee is saying. Sometimes what the person is saying can start your mental process on a subject and you can form an opinion on it. Try to stop this process from happening. Your brain has to be empty of any judgements and directed at producing quality questions rather than forming your own opinions. But, make sure you are not thinking about the next “great” question to ask and losing track of what is being said. Go with the flow. A good question is a timely question, it has to be based on what your coachee has said just now.
- Ask open questions
It sounds easy, but from my experience it’s pretty hard to always ask only open questions. Closed questions seem harmless from time to time, but they are much more dangerous than you would think. Closed questions can lead to manipulation. Open questions sound like this “What was your most valuable experience related to this?” as opposed to the closed “Do you think that this experience was the most valuable for you?” Framing the question like that makes a person think about only one possibility out of all the rest. Can you imagine how manipulative it can be?
- Resist temptation to manipulate
When you are asking questions, you can easily fall into the trap of manipulation. How? If you already have a strong opinion on the topic, all the questions emerging in your head can be targeted at getting “the right” answer from your coachee. The worst you can do is to lead the coachee in the “right” direction and make him or her say what you want to hear. Be certain that even if you do this unintentionally, the person you are coaching will feel it. He or she will realize you are pulling them in a particular direction for a particular reason, pursuing some hidden agenda. This can result in a loss of trust.
- Don’t ask “why”
Why? The “why” question was a subject of several research studies already. Scientists found that if people ask “why” when thinking about themselves, it makes them enter the self-pity state, whereas asking “what” orients them more towards the future.
One of the studies talked about the following experiment. Researchers divided students into two equal groups and asked one of them to reflect on the question “What kind of person I am” and the other one on “Why I am the kind of person I am”.
The very reflection on these different questions put them into two different states of mind, as was discovered later. When the reflection time was over, the students were given positive and negative evaluations (they didn’t know, but all of them were given the same evaluations).
As it turned out, the students in the “why” group were resistant to the negative feedback, while the students in the “what” group were more receptive. The first group was now locked in the state of victimhood and so had to defend itself, while the second group was feeling just fine and was constructive.
Coaching process looks forward to the future and is directed at finding the solution rather than looking at the root cause. Coaches believe that even if you find the root cause, it may not contribute to solving the problem. Especially in regards to complex problems there can be hundreds of reasons why it is what it is. Focusing on the problem rather than the solution will put your coachee into the moody and sluggish state of mind. Because of that, whenever your team member starts reflecting on the “why” question too much, formulate the question differently — e.g. “what can you do to change it”?
- Let your need of control go
Don’t check if the goal was achieved by your coachee. This was one of my biggest mistakes when I was coaching my scrum team members before I took the business coaching course. The moment you take control of your team member’s decisions, you are putting yourself above them. Coaching can happen only if a coach and a coachee are equal. A Scrum Master should be of a no higher authority than a Development Team member.
- Don’t coach a person on the topic you have a strong opinion on
You will find it very difficult to coach someone if you have a strong opinion on the topic. If only we could be as strong and unemotional as robots to be able to completely ignore our own strong feelings and opinions.. Imagine the situation where you are coaching someone who wants to get a divorce because they fell in love with somebody else and you are a passionate advocate of one and the only one marriage in life. The same can happen in business coaching, too. I can’t coach on the implementation of Scrum, for example. If my coachee wants to implement something which I firmly believe is detrimental in Scrum, it would be hard for me to hide my opinion on that. Mentoring would be the right choice here.
It’s more than normal to stop coaching, if you realize that you are emotionally involved and it’s difficult for you to support your team member in any decision he or she would make.
You probably now wonder what you as a Scrum Master can coach the team on? It can be anything you don’t have a strong opinion on. E.g. if your team is looking for a right technological solution or is blocked by an external party. If the answer is yet to be found, coaching is the right tool to use.
- Coach your team member only on what he or she can personally do
Coaching can’t be directed at changing somebody else other than your coachee. If your team member is saying “during this coaching session I want to focus on how to change the behaviour of my manager”, stop them right away. The only coachable goal is how he or she can change themselves or their attitude. Your team member can change their behaviour and thus may make their manager behave differently. But the success here is not guaranteed, as you don’t know what else influences manager’s behaviour.
How will you know if the coaching session is a success? Successful coaching is when your coachee realizes at least one small thing, but which is so important that it gives them inspiration and energy to move forward. Coaching is great in a way that a coachee effectively solves their problem themselves, and this solution is so good that you couldn’t have come up with a better one yourself.