This is a transcript of episode 243 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

A client challenges Squirrel on his directive style when coaching, wondering whether this clashes with his espoused belief in joint design and inquiry. Jeffrey and Squirrel reflect on the crucial differences between being asked for advice and help, and manipulating the situation and information flow to “win” an argument. These considerations turn out to be relevant to product and technical decisions too!

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Listen to this section at 00:11

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel. Today I thought it’d be good for us to discuss an interesting question someone asked you. Can you share that question with us?

Squirrel: I certainly can. So this person said, “Hey, Squirrel, you’re coaching me and you’re telling me all about this fantastic idea of the mutual learning model, and ‘we should jointly design solutions’ and I should understand before trying to be understood, and I should inquire rather than advocate. That sounds great, except you don’t seem to do that very much with me in particular. You keep telling me what to do, like you tell me to go ask more questions and you give me homework, and it’s about five times more directive than I would normally be. You’re telling me to do what you’re doing with people I’m coaching and helping, and that doesn’t feel very mutual learning to me. What’s going on here?”

Jeffrey: Now it’s a question of consistency here. You’re saying one thing and doing another. It sounds like he’s got you, because it sounds like you should be questioning and you’re directing him. What’s going on?

Squirrel: Well here’s the way I think about it. We’ve often talked about the mutual learning model and the unilateral control model. The mutual learning model is the one with joint design and “ask lots of questions” and so on. Unilateral control is what people do when it matters. They say they do the mutual learning, “but this one really matters, so we don’t want to bring up any other arguments like why we don’t want to do this, because that would just distract people from making the right choice, which is the one we want them to make. So let’s be defensive, let’s be cautious. Let’s not bring up all the issues. Let’s not bring the people into the room until the end of the process.” People do that kind of stuff. That’s the unilateral control model. I claim that when I’m giving direction, when you’re coaching an engineer in your team or a product manager or something like that, that what we’re doing is very much mutual because the person being coached should—we could talk about whether this always happens but should—be requesting that advice and help from you. Therefore I find it very helpful to be really clear and directive when someone has asked me to help them and that feels very mutual to me because the person has the opportunity to say, “Squirrel, I trust your advice, I trust your judgment. I want to know what you think the right thing to do is.” And I’m also not hiding any information from them. So it’s not like the situation where I want them to make a decision because it benefits me and therefore I’m going to hide information, or I’m not going to solicit opposing views. I’m just going to tell them, “You’ve asked me for advice. Here’s what I think you should do. Here’s the reason why. I’m ready to help you to do that when you’re ready for it.”

Consenting to Direction

Listen to this section at 03:12

Jeffrey: One thing that’s interesting about this are the prerequisites that you’re describing, the things that happen before you get to providing direction. You’ve done some work to get to that point, is that right?

Squirrel: Absolutely. When I first meet somebody for coaching, I put on show my very directive coaching style. People who’ve been coached by me know that I give very difficult homework. I’m a hard taskmaster. I don’t let people off. I make sure that they’re accountable to me for what they’re doing. I put that on show and I say, “Is this interesting to you? Is this the sort of thing that you want to do?” Occasionally somebody says, “No, this isn’t for me, this sounds terrifying.” And I say, “Great!”

Jeffrey: This is before you even have them as a client.

Squirrel: Yeah, they haven’t paid me, I’m just getting to know them. “This is what it’s like to get coached by me,” some people run in fear, thankfully not very many or my business wouldn’t be doing so good. But the point is that there’s a contracting element there where all those who go forward with me say, “yeah, I want to try that, I’m willing to have hard homework, I’m willing to be accountable, I want to improve.” And then I have no compunctions about saying, “this is what you should do, do this now. Why haven’t you done it? Let’s remove the obstacles to doing it. I want you to phone me tomorrow after you’ve done it.”

Jeffrey: Right. So essentially that contract is what makes it mutual, you’ve been upfront about it, you’ve agreed what the aims are.

Squirrel: And I’m giving the direction in response to their question and with their best interests in mind. And they’re also perfectly free to ignore me. And people do. I give them advice in homework and they don’t do it. And we explore why they didn’t release more frequently or why they didn’t go and talk to the people in marketing to figure out why their requirements were so weird. They have a free choice to do something different, unlike the situation where you’re manipulating, being defensive, holding back information. I’m doing the opposite.

Jeffrey: Right. I like that you bring in that point, that you’ve demonstrated your style ahead of time to let people make the free and informed choice about whether to even enter into a coaching relationship like that. That’s an important part of the process, I would say.

Squirrel: They’re also welcome to leave. That’s fine. I think that’s happened only very rarely. But they do have that choice and they are free to do that. There are people who don’t get a lot from my coaching because they don’t do the homework and they don’t make the improvements and they aren’t my coaching clients for very long.

Directing to Your Audience

Listen to this section at 06:08

Jeffrey: I hear this and I think about my own experience coaching. You and I have coached together and have been at times jointly demanding on people and jointly directive. I think that’s one thing that makes us different as coaches, that we are coming in with domain experience and domain knowledge often. Some people really like that. Having that agreement with people to have that style and also the limits of what they’re willing to do is crucial. I think about the range of coaching that I’ve done with different people and one thing I often find is, especially with people who I have a less formal coaching relationship with, where I’m not being paid to coach them directly, that it’s very much a case of knowing what they’re actually seeking advice on. So I often have lots of ideas that I think could be relevant to their situation, but I usually try to limit my direction to the places they are actually asking for direction. So that really often can be a case where people are asking me for help on what I think is like maybe their fifth most important problem and they have no interest in the other four. It’s an odd situation.

Squirrel: I like to check that attribution. If I observe something, I think I have an obligation to say something. I have a current client who brought me a particular type of problem and said, “look, we have two people who really need to improve their performance. Their performance isn’t good.” And I’m picking up this massive cultural problem in the whole organization. Every single person in the company is unable to formulate any problem in anything other than a totally abstract way. So that means they never understand. They have no examples. So they aren’t very effective at getting things done. They’re very effective at making more and more processes, but not of actually finishing. I have gently pointed this out a few times to not much interest, but I feel I wouldn’t be responsible to my client if I didn’t say “there’s something else we could work on.” But I don’t press it. I just say, “Look, I’ll help you with this part and these people operate better in your environment. There is a problem in the environment which you might want to think about,” but I won’t coach on that. I won’t focus on that. I won’t make that part of my goals and outcomes that I’m measuring with my coaching client unless and until that’s agreed with the people paying the money.

Jeffrey: For me, even if it’s not the people spending the money, just the person I’m talking to. Part of it comes down to just not wanting to waste our mutual time. There’s an element of self-interest in this that while it can be quite fun to share all of your wisdom of all the things they could be doing, I have learned over the years that talking to people about things they’re not interested in is not very effective. So I think even outside of any sort of commercial relationship, I’m pretty careful these days in applying the mutual learning model to not be offering advice where it’s not aligned with what they say they want help in. Some of the investment that I’ll make is understanding what it is they’re actually looking for. Sometimes what people are looking for is just to have someone listen to them. So if someone comes to me with a problem, they’re not necessarily looking for me to even provide direction. It’s maybe just listening. IF we get to the point where there’s some advice that they’re interested in, then I’m going to make sure that the advice is kind of limited to that area of their interest. So there is a kind of element here of being directed by the other person in offering direction, which I think is an interesting relationship.

“What Do You Need?”

Listen to this section at 09:59

Squirrel: Certainly is. You’re a lot nicer and more patient than I am. What I tend to do with the people that I’m working with is to really press them to identify what their question is. So when someone does start telling me a whole lot of background and stories and information, I say, “This is all very nice. What’s the question?” This is a great product management tool as well, somebody starts telling you about how the software they currently have does this and that, you say “what’s the most painful thing? What do you want me to change today?” Because once you find out the answer to just that question, that will lead you to lots of questions that get you the right background and will help you to actually answer the question. So this works for coaching, product management, a lot of other circumstances. Find out what the question is before you get the background.

Jeffrey: Yeah, I was literally using the coaching kata from the book Toyota Kata earlier today with with a group going through their obstacle inventory, that was exactly the kind of the process there. “So you’ve written down about some tasks. What’s the actual problem? What’s the obstacle you’re trying to overcome? That’s what we need to identify.” That process of getting clarity was really helpful to them in the time we had today. That’s all we got to. But that was very useful and it was exactly the same process you’re describing of being clear exactly what the problem is makes it much clearer what we need to do next. So I very much agree with that approach.

Squirrel: Any more to say on this one?

Jeffrey: The only thing that I would say about this is a special sort of coda here to any parents out there, what we’ve just described we’ve put into terms of the workplace. But this probably goes double for your relationship with your children, especially as they start to get to be teenagers. I can say this as a parent with four children, the youngest of which is 19, learning these skills were very helpful at home as well as in coaching.

Squirrel: Fantastic. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.