Good coaching is a good science

For many managers, particularly those with strong technical and science backgrounds, the concept and practice of coaching can seem a little abstract.  The good news is you can anchor your coaching on the robust process of the scientific method.

The scientific method is based on observing a phenomenon and then searching to explain why it occurs.  The scientist forms a hypothesis and tests are conducted to confirm or reject the hypothesis.  Good coaching follows a very similar approach.

  1. Help the staff member accurately define the problem / issue.  Help them separate facts from assumption.
  2. Help the staff member explore causes – to develop a hypothesis for why the issue or problem is happening.
  3. Test – support the staff member to test their hypothesis.
  4. Explore results of the test – validate, reject or refine the hypothesis.

Here’s an example of using the scientific method to guide a coaching conversation:

Shelly’s a manager and Ray comes to her with an issue about a client being “difficult to work with”.  Like a good scientist, Shelly does not accept things on face value. Instead, she looks to accurately frame the issue or problem.  By asking questions she helps Ray separate facts from assumptions to establish what’s actually happening.

Her questions reveal the client is missing deadlines for providing project critical information.  This is a fact. That the client is “difficult to work with” is an assumption. Ray is now able to reframe the issue objectively, versus working with the initial and subjective frame of “the client is difficult to work with”.

Shelly now asks Ray why he thinks the client is being slow to turn around important information. By doing this she is asking Ray to formulate a hypothesis for what is happening.  Most likely Ray will come up with more than one hypothesis.  For example, “the project is not a high priority for the client” or “we aren’t communicating the huge impact late delivery of information is having on the project”.

Shelly then encourages Ray to identify which hypothesis he thinks is most likely causing the phenomenon called “late delivery of information”. Ray decides the primary cause is the client being unaware of the major impact late delivery of information is having on the project.

Next, Shelly has Ray explore and decide what they are going to do to test this hypothesis.  Ray decides to arrange a one-on-one meeting with the client on Wednesday to explain why turning around information on time is critical to the project’s success.

Shelly meets with Ray after his meeting with the client to explore whether the tested hypothesis was correct.  If there is no change, and the phenomenon of late turn-around of information continues, she will work with Ray to explore and test another hypothesis.

Notice that all through this process Shelly has used questions – not given answers or told Ray what to do.  Scientists love questions. Questions illuminate.  By asking questions Shelly has ensured Ray retains ownership of both the problem and the solution.