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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Decoding a Great Coaching Cycle

by Tilo Schwarz | Tips for the Kata Coach | Episode 16

This article analyzes one of Denise's coaching cycles to discuss some general tips and deepening questions for the coach.

Episode #16

In Episode 13, Denise tested if the Improvement Kata Cycle she developed would help her as a reference when coaching Mark (read the first part of Episode 13 for details).

Let's review that coaching cycle and take a closer look at what Denise did as a coach.

Analyzing Denis and Mark's Coaching Cycle (Part 1)

Helpful approaches Denis uses in this section:

  1. Sometimes we feel the urge as a coach to interrupt and comment on the Improvers answer. Sometimes it is better to count to three and let the moment pass. Often there is more valuable information to come, which we would otherwise miss.

  2. Mark is not only at the threshold of knowledge but feels stuck, as the solution he proposed, (see Episode 12) did not work. Denise invites him to relax by signaling we are in this together.

  3. Denise uses a general trick for the coach here: If we don't know - we have to go deeper. I like to think of this as the 'zoom-in' technique. That is like with a microscope. If we can't see the details, we have to switch to the next tube and increase the resolution (see Episode 15).

  4. The solution proposed by Mark does not work. That is a tricky situation for Denise, and she could easily fall into the trap of offering alternative solutions. Then she would leave her role as a coach and take away the initiative from Mark. Or she could invite Mark to think up other solutions. That would soon lead to trial and error idea testing. Instead, she uses the Improvement Kata Cycle to navigate. If a solution does not work, we might not have understood the problem well enough, i.e., we have jumped to phase 4 (next step) too quickly. Denise, therefore, moves back to phase 3 (obstacle + root cause) to investigate the obstacle further.

  5. Denise helps Mark to zoom in by asking 'what exactly is the problem?'. That is a very useful question in phase 3. Often coaches starting to practice the Coaching Kata move too quickly from 'which one (obstacle) are you addressing now' to 'what is your next step'. Thereby often root cause analysis falls short, and we end up with an arbitrary next step. Therefore I have started inviting Coaches to use the following sequence as a Starter Kata in this phase: What obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target condition? — Which one are you addressing now? — What exactly is the problem? — What is, therefore, your next step? — What do you expect?

  6. As Marks answer about the problem is very vague, Denise uses a technique called: 'Repeat the question and ADD the keyword from the answer you would like to zoom in on'. This approach takes the conversation one level deeper again.

  7. The 'zoom in' drives Mark to take Denise to the process. Alternatively, Denise could have added 'let's go and see while you explain'. This is another variation of‚ if we don't know, 'zoom in' i.e.‚ lets go&see.

Analyzing Denise and Mark's Coaching Cycle (Part 2)

Helpful approaches Denise uses in this section:

  1. Denise uses a double trick here, although she might not be aware of it herself. First, Denise helps Mark to zoom in by twice using the question "what exactly is the problem?". Mark: …cable needs to be longer. Denise: …what, exactly is the problem? Mark: …cable is too short. Denise: …what exactly is the problem with … being too short? Mark: …people struggle when plugging the cable in. Denise then changes the perspective and opposes the problem description 'struggle when plugging in' with the desired state of the process 'plug in with ease'. In a way, this is like Current Condition and a Next Target Condition, just much smaller and on a lower level i.e. zoomed in. Framing it that way she can now start the Improvement Kata all over again at this lower level and therefore asks: "Which obstacles are preventing you from reaching the (tinier) Target Condition?". What we can see here is, as our colleague Emiel van Est once pointed out, that the Improvement Kata is self-similar no matter how far you 'zoom in'. I find this very useful when coaching. If something seems too big, let's slice it into its fundamental parts and define smaller target conditions on a more detailed (lower) level. Of course, in our example, this is something Denise does in her mind and may even be unaware of as she is so used to taking the Improvement Kata approach. Staying even more on the coaching side she could have taken Mark along this thought journey by asking e.g., "How should the process run ideally?" or a bit more specific "How should the team members be able to plug in the cable ideally?". Two helpful deepening questions to do this are: Zoom in on the current state: "What exactly happens in the process, for the problem to occur?" Then develop a tiny next Target Condition: "How should the process run correctly/ideally?" Inviting the Improver to visualize seems to be quite helpful at this point too. E.g., a block diagram or flow chart of the current process compared with a block diagram or flow chart of the desired process makes it a lot easier to identify obstacles on a more detailed zoom level. The approach of asking about the ideal process might also have another positive side effect. Mark has pointed out that he does not know what to do because his proposed solution to the problem is not working. He is now somewhat stuck in his way of thinking as there seem to be no other options. However, it is like he is looking at the problem from the perspective of the current state. By asking, or in this case mentioning, the ideal state Denise invites him to take a look at the problem from the other side. It sounds funny, but I have observed this effect in many coaching cycles. Looking at the problem from the perspective of the ideal state, rather than from where we are right now, somehow opens the discussion and leads to new thoughts. That might be a tiny version of the miracle question originating from solution-focused therapy and could be a helpful starting point for a more systemic coaching approach in situations where the Improver seems mentally or emotionally stuck.

  2. Actually 'cable too short' and 'sockets too far apart' are not precise obstacles yet. However, Mark comes up with a second perspective besides the 'cable too short' problem. Denise grasps the straw and treats the insights from 'zoom-in' as obstacles. Asking Mark to write them down secures the new perspective and gives Denise some time to think. Certainly, there are various ways to use the Obstacle Parking Lot. I like to think of it as a white paper where we can take notes about the obstacles we encounter. It might not be necessary to have them precisely described and evaluated yet. We can still do that once we choose an obstacle to work on and rephrase it, with more precision, on the experimenting record.

  3. "What does this mean in data?" is another universal deepening question for the coach that can be useful at many points of the coaching cycle. It is a good probing question to find the threshold of knowledge about something the Improver mentions. The situation at that point of the coaching cycle is quite tricky, so let's have another look. Denise: "Which obstacle are you going to address next?" Mark: "Now, unfortunately, engineering won't agree to a longer cable so that only leaves the 'too long a distance between the sockets' to be addressed. But I don't know how that could be changed. I can't move the sockets." It would be so easy as a coach to react to Marks last two sentences as they create tension by signaling this is a dead-end again. The second last sentence seems like the threshold of knowledge (I don't know how that could be changed), but probably it would not be helpful to react on it, as it is a threshold of knowledge about the solution. We are not there yet. We still haven't understood the problem well enough. Mark's last sentence is absolute and also tempting to react to. However, moving the sockets might just be one solution, and just because that is not possible doesn't mean there is no solution at all. Denise does a great job as a coach here by simply ignoring the last two sentences. That takes a lot of self-control and practice. She then picks the valuable part of the sentence 'too long distance between sockets' and realizes the impression hidden in 'too long'. This gives her the opportunity to probe for the threshold of knowledge there with "What does too long mean in data?" Asking about data has a second positive side effect and is not only aimed at getting data. After zooming in, we are at a new level of detail in the process. When observing the process so far, we might not have taken that close a look. Asking for data about a certain topic often leads to a new, focused process observation, thereby moving the Improver closer to details in the process and that will often reveal helpful insights.

  4. Once the threshold of knowledge is identified, Denise can jump to question 4 and ask for a next step. However, Mark feels awkward at the threshold of knowledge, which is very common, especially in the beginning. So making people feel at ease at the threshold of knowledge might be an important task for the coach. This is what Denise tries to do with the opener "Don't worry Mark if you don't know". She then uses question 4 asking about the next step but makes a helpful addition with "what's your next step to find out?" This addition ensures that the next step is exactly at the threshold of knowledge and aimed for deeper understanding.

This has developed into quite a lengthy session again so we'll keep the rest for next week. You can find the card with the deepening questions Denise and Jason have developed below. If you like you can print it out and experiment with it. There are more deepening questions on it than we have discussed so far so we will follow up on them in the episodes to come.

Next week: Read about why the left side of the card Denise uses is slightly different from the original Coaching Kata starter questions. Also, I hope to finally discuss the multi-tool for the coach which I actually promised in episode 14.

If you like this post, forward it to a friend or colleague right now because they will appreciate getting helpful tips from you.



For new readers: Every week, I share hands-on tips for coaching with the Coaching Kata. This episode is part of a series of articles about Denise, who has taken on her first management position as a department manager at PowerPump Inc. Denise intends to develop her team through coaching. Read Episode 1 to get into the story.

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