Coaching can be better.
There I said it. Not with any contempt towards the practice, mind you. My life as it currently stands (I recently got back from a delightful year of travel and living abroad with my wife, during which I was able to, amid many lovely cultural experiences, do meaningful and fruitful work on my own schedule via laptop) has its roots in some really good coaching I’ve received along the way, so rest assured I’m a fan.
But I know from experience (of both coaching and being coached) that the model typically employed, i.e. the weekly coaching session to review progress and create what’s next, has predictable and regular shortcomings. In this essay I will illustrate how I’ve come to recognize and understand these shortcomings, and how they came to shape the design of my system for structuring and supporting coaching relationships, CoachAccountable.
It Started with Forgetting
Years ago when I was coaching several individuals during a months-long program I noticed an irksome pattern. I would commonly open our coaching calls with “So, how’s your action plan going?” or perhaps “How’s such-and-such coming along?” This was commonly met with with some variation of “Oh, um, what’s on my plan again?” or “Did I say I would do that? When’s that due?”
I swear my coachees were clear and motivated about the game plan when they created it last week. Were they all just giving lip service to high ambitions? Or were my bunch particularly a group of laggards? No, the explanation is much simpler and less insidious.
They just forgot. Or life came up. Or, perhaps most accurately, there wasn’t anything about their usual daily routine that would have them think to break out this sheet of paper they’d filled out days ago and keep up with the to-dos they’d written on it.
Being coached is the stuff of stretching outside of one’s normal life so we should hardly be surprised if acting upon it isn’t automatic.
More broadly, coach can generally be counted on to give a great coaching session, leaving coachee inspired, motivated, and clear about how to move forward. But afterward coachee is on their own for the next week. Distraction, forgetting and getting confronted are all super common things that hinder progress, leading to a net effect of two steps forward, one step back.
So I reasoned that something to bridge the chasm between coaching calls might do wonders for follow through and maintaining forward momentum. The solution is cumbersome and awkward for a person to do: which coach has the time and tenacity to give timely reminders by text, email, or phone throughout the week to her clients, to say nothing of how invasive and in-your-face that might feel for a coachee?
But it’s rather elegant coming from a machine: software has no problem delivering a scheduled virtual tap on the shoulder to remind someone “Hey, don’t forget to do X by tomorrow at 7.”, and the recipient of such a timely nudge doesn’t feel the burden of a real person on the other end breathing down their neck.
Set it and forget it. Until the reminders automatically kick in, anyway.
What’s the score again?
Another common problem with run-of-the-mill coaching is that we humans are super bad at juggling more than a few numbers in our heads. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that most results-based coaching is concerned with numeric stats and how they progress over time.
Typical coaching generally concerns itself with two numbers in the moment: “how’s it going now”, and “what was your number last week”. That’s good enough to celebrate an upswing of progress or diagnose a problem, but it’s woefully insufficient to see bigger picture: how far someone has come over a months-long engagement, patches of stagnation, patterns of what historically works.
These insights of performance over time are unavailable without some sort of regular tracking. I’ve seen organizations where the records of internal training are captured in ugly Excel spreadsheets, filled out and emailed to HR on Tuesdays and then seldom revisited. Performance trends there are all but buried unless someone bothers to sift through the stack and piece it together (spoiler alert: no one ever does).
So here again is a place where software can do something really well for coaching: be a system to cause regular reporting, and a pretty way to display the accumulated results. A clear record provides both insights for the coach and motivation and satisfaction for the coachee.
As I write this my wife and I are doing the Slow Carb diet out of the 4 Hour Body. We picked up one of those scales which registers your body fat and water composition as well. We’re using CoachAccountable Metrics to track our daily numbers, and thank goodness for it. There’s a lot of noise on the signal from day to day (we should only expect so much accuracy from a $28 scale doing crude bio-electrical impedance measurements), so we’d probably get disheartened if we saw only the short-term fluctuations. But the overarching trends reveal that things are working well, which keeps it fun and puts our real progress front-and-center.
Every morning at 7am I get an email asking me to track my weight for today. I hit reply, type a number, and hit send. The numbers collect themselves into this graph.
There are several other shortcomings to typical coaching as I have experienced it that I’ve translated into structural solutions:
- Coachees seldom fully prepared for coaching sessions? Reminders automatically sent a half-hour prior via text.
- Nuggets of coaching wisdom that vanish into obscurity within days of the session? A growing repository of shared session notes accumulates online.
- Worksheet assignments that go undone? One-click access to fill ’em out as prompted by a timely reminder.
- Coachees who get stuck within two days and flounder until the next coaching session? Coach can see how the week is unfolding in real time and intervene as is appropriate.
- Coachees not clear about the value they’ve gotten or the progress they’ve made within coaching? The whole record of accomplishment is all right there, organized and ready to revisit at anytime.
Of Content and Structure
I feel that the experience of being coached can be broken into two rather distinct parts: content and structure. Content is the material of coaching: the expertise, the school of thought, the brand of wisdom being imparted. As I understand it, content is the predominant substance of most coach training and certification programs. Structure is the stuff of how that content gets delivered and how that delivery is supported.
The coaches I’ve met are generally quite good at content: they can employ their knowledge and expertise to lead a coachee from a place of stuck or stagnation to one of clarity and empowerment, often in 30 minutes or less. In some instances it’s nothing short of magic. By contrast, most coaches I know (including myself way back when) are rubbish at structure, at least relative to what they could be. It just doesn’t get a lot of the focus in coach training, or the execution is too time consuming.
It is this structure gap that I think represents coaching’s greatest opportunity to better apply its many merits for more consistent and tangible results, and redeem itself to those who would derisively confuse it for armchair psychology or professional advice giving. Hat tip to the folks at JournalEngine, JigsawBox, and other such solutions: I think it safe to say that we’re all in our own way working to bridge the structure gap and nudge the institution of coaching towards more widespread understanding and appreciation.
For my sake I’m content to assume for now that I have nothing to teach the coaching world about content. But as a programmer who’s made a career out of designing solutions to automate and amplify human effectiveness, I have much to contribute about structure.
My perspective of software’s ability to automate and support the typical happenings in a coaching relationship is what has lead to the design of CoachAccountable. It’s a useful perspective, I think, and that hunch has been echoed by dozens of coaches who have so far both adopted my system and been forward enough to report back their deep fondness for it.
Here’s to the bright future of coaching and all that it can be.