23 July 2018

Three Rules of Coaching Engagement

Last year software crafter and Kotlin enthusiast Oleksii Fedorov asked me about technical coaching. He was going to work with a small team and focus on technical enablement. He would do so by pair and mob programming with them for some time and later support them remotely if needed. During that time there would be no pressure or deadline to deliver new features so they could focus on improving.

Oleksii is a like-minded peer. I met him on several occasions in the past. He is fun to work with and considers teaching an integral part of pair programming. I did not expect any problems. He kept pushing me and made me think about my principles. In the end I came up with three points I like to make clear right from the beginning, i.e. set the ground rules of the engagement.

Drill Sergeant Giving Orders (maybe not coaching ;-)1. Manage expectations
Managing expectations is crucial. I learnt that the hard way during my Pair Programming Tour. Whenever I run a session, e.g. pair or mob programming and often also prepared workshops, I start with a discussion to collect expectations. For longer contracts I recommend to start with a dedicated meeting to do so. Usually expectations are fuzzy, like "I want to learn something", so keep pushing with questions like "How will you know it was worth it? How will you measure that you learned something?" and so on. In the end I want the team to come up with ways to measure their learning and define their own success metrics.

2. Learning is their responsibility
Oleksii planned for two weeks. In two weeks people will not change (much). Such a coaching engagement does not last long enough for much impact, rather it is a start of a (maybe even life long) journey of learning and improving. This is true from day one and during the initial meeting I make it clear that I am not a teacher. I will not push knowledge onto them to be forgotten the next day. To get something from working together, people have to participate, to engage, to invest time and effort into the topic. They will only get so much from it what they have put into it themselves. Learning is their responsibility.

3. Treat them as strangers
After removing the responsibility to teach anything - because learning is their responsibility - I feel less stressed. As coach I am still responsible for creating a safe space, providing content, managing exercises and a lot of other things. If someone does not want to participate or feels like doing something else, I have to be OK with that. Even being paid for "teaching" should not change that. My advice here is to treat the team members as "strangers", like we treat new visitors of a Coding Dojo. As a facilitator I try to help, but I will not oppose or coerce.

Oleksii started the job soon afterwards. I was sure everything would work out fine. When we met again he told me that my three rules had helped him. 1. He collected expectations in the beginning and managed them while moving forward. 2. People understood that they had to invest and some participants even showed up for sessions during their free time. 3. People where entering and leaving sessions all the time, still he stayed relaxed.

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