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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Why Quantum Mechanics matter for the Coaching Kata

by Tilo Schwarz | Tips for the Kata Coach | Episode 17

In 1932 the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Werner Karl Heisenberg for the creation of quantum mechanics. This world of the smallest of things is so far away from everyday life that we usually don't think about it. But maybe we should when coaching with the Coaching Kata.

Recap of the last episode:

In the previous episode, we decoded one of Denise's coaching cycles and discussed some tricks she used, such as 'REPEAT and ADD' and 'ZOOM IN'.

(Read Episode 16 for details)


Episode #17

One of the things some might remember about Heisenberg is his uncertainty principle, which he published at the age of twenty-three in 1925. Simply put, the principle states that something can't be measured without changing it at the same time. When putting in a thermometer to measure the temperature of the water in the bathtub, the thermometer will cool the water a bit, thus making the measurement wrong. Of course, this effect is so small it does not play a roll in our daily life, but at the level of quantum mechanics, it does.

In episode 15 Denise mentioned that she does not like to ask 'what did you plan as your last step' at the beginning of phase two but would rather start with an open question (see Episode 15). This is why her Coaching Kata question card (see Episode 16) looks slightly different.

Phase 2 of Denise’s card looks like this:

What is the Actual Condition now?… (wait for answer) …and what did you learn from taking your last step?

So in her standard coaching routine Denise is only asking about the learning from the last step. She does not immediately ask the sequence of questions we all know from the Coaching Kata five questions card.

Her idea is this. Besides achieving results by coaching the improver to reach the next Target Condition, the second purpose when coaching is to develop the Improvers ability.

How do we develop a persons ability? Imagine booking a day with a ski coach to improve your skiing, assuming that you already have some basic skiing skills. What will the coach do first? For sure he will ask you to ski some lengths of a slope to give him the opportunity to observe your Current Condition. Then he will compare his observations with a reference in his mind and derive the deviations. Based on that he will define a first learning focus and then start giving specific advice or run you through a specific exercise.

Maybe that is a good model to have in mind when coaching. First understand Current Condition of the Improvers ability. Compare it with our reference of a scientific, systematic problem solving approach (the Kata Circle might serve as a good reference — see Episode 12) and identify deviations. Then react based on that analysis.

But how do we understand the Current Condition of a persons ability, or to put differently, a persons way of thinking? As with a ski coach it is by giving a task and observing. In a coaching cycle this happens by asking a question and listening to the answer.

The difficult part in truly understanding the way the other person thinks is not to influence the answer by the questions we ask. Of course there is no human interaction that will have zero effect on the people involved. Just like there is no measurement in quantum that does not influence the system measured. However, we should try to have the least influence which is why we ask open questions and why suggestive questions are a no go as a coach.

Another point might be that the first question we ask should also leave maximum room for the Improver to answer them their own way. This is what simply asking „what did you learn from taking your last step“ does.

An experienced improver might answer:

  • As a last step I planned to do A...

  • and expected B to happen.

  • When I actually conducted the experiment, C happened...

  • from which I conclude D.

Here we see all the parts that make for a good scientific approach in phase two of the coaching cycle.

  • Reflect on 'last step planned' and 'original expectation / hypothesis'.

  • Compare it with the 'result' that actually happened.

  • Based on the comparison, draw a conclusion or finding.

An inexperienced improver however, might only answer "It did not work“ or even explain a different step.

Actually this is like using the Improvement Kata for ability development. The Coach has to have a picture of the desired ability (the desired answer regarding a scientific approach) in mind - a bit like understanding direction.

Then the Coach does some observation of the current ability which is like 'grasp the Current Condition'.

Based on the outcome, the Coach can understand the Improvers current way of thinking and therefore ability.

If the Coach recognizes repeating patterns in the way the Improver thinks and acts he can identify a field of learning for the Improver which we could call a next Target Condition for the Coach regarding the Improvers’ ability.

Now imagine the Coach asking all the following questions in this order:

  • What did you plan as your last step?

  • What did you expect?

  • What actually happened?

  • What did you learn?

There is hardly any room for the Improver to get off track. It feels a bit like steering with a remote control through this part of the coaching cycle. This might disguise the actual way of thinking of the Improver and therefore prevent the coach from understanding and developing the Improvers ability.

This is why Denise likes to start with the open question "what did you learn from taking your last step" first.

If Denise feels (i.e. has the Hypothesis*) that an Improver responds with an answer not linked to the last step, Denise might follow with "what did you plan as your last step" as a deepening question.

If an Improver comes up with an answer linked to the last step but not matching the expectation developed in the last coaching cycle, Denise might throw in "what did you expect" as a further deepening question.

If measurement, i.e. every question influences the outcome we maybe should train to ask less influential questions first.



To be clear on this. I don’t think we should change the Coaching Kata Starter Questions card we all know. I am just proposing to invite experienced coaches to step back a bit in phase two and only ask "what did you learn from taking your last step". Then react situationally with deepening questions depending on the answer.

Also I would like to invite coaches to increase their awareness of how little words can influence the Improves answer. For example some Coaches tend to ask "which biggest obstacle will you address next“ thus adding only one word — ‘biggest’.

However, this primes the Improver to prioritize for the biggest and hides from the Coach how the Improver would have prioritized the Obstacles without the priming.

Another thing I have observed is beginner Coaches jumping to asking for the next step too quickly. Here is an example based on one of Denise’s early coaching cycles.

Denise: Which Obstacles are preventing you from reaching the target condition?

Mark: Damaging the sealing during the assembly, jamming nuts when assembling the motor lid, and problems when plugging in the cable on the controller board.

Denise: Which one are you addressing now?

Mark: The problems with the controller board cable.

Denise: „What is therefore your next step“?

Mark: „I think the cable is simply too short. I will talk to Rosalyn from purchasing to find out if we can get a longer cable from the supplier.“

This is the point where Denise realizes ‚We are jumping to conclusions‘ (Read episode 12)

A simple way to help beginner coaches is to add the question "what exactly is the problem“ after one Obstacle to address has been selected. This often helps the Improver to dig deeper and prevents jumping to a premature step.

This is what Denise‘s coaching card looks like.

*It might be a good way of thinking to treat our thoughts about an Improvers answer as an hypothesis or a subjective evaluation and test them by asking an open deepening question.



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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