Coaching Leadership

Recognising the Craft of Others

It’s easy to recognise the complexity and difficulty of your own role, especially when it’s a specific niche or requires a significant amount of expertise.

It can be harder for us to recognise that same complexity in the roles of others. Whether it’s those of you who write software assuming that design is easy, or people in finance who feel like complex products should spring into life fully formed and predictably, when you look at what “they” are doing, you quickly oversimplify.

How to you prevent yourself doing it, and how do you protect yourself from it happening?

Both sides are pretty similar, you need to go on the journey and walk a few miles in the shoes of others.

Stop and think hard about a job that isn’t yours, but you think is easy. What’s driving that thinking. Do you have any evidence, or is it just a feeling?

If it’s a feeling, seek out an opportunity to join in on the complexity. Sit in on a user research session and watch the skills of an experienced questioner gathering powerful insights. Get a software engineer to run you through the systems and show you how new features are launched. Spend half an hour with a finance professional to understand how they join together complex data sources to create vital governance reports.

Once you can see the complexity, it’s a lot harder to write them off as having it easy.

So if you are suffering the slings and arrows of someone shouting “simple”, then you need to get them inside and see that difficulty. It may be harder as if they don’t recognise the pain, they won’t be as proactive.

Appeal to their experience or see their insight. Get them into a session where they’ll see the difficulty and how you need experience to do well. If you can safely let them experiment in the space then that’s even better. Practical experience of failure will live on in their mind as a lesson far longer than seeing you succeed at something they still think is eay.

Recognise the craft and contribution of others, and help others to recognise your own craft. When everyone understands this, then you’ll form more effective teams, and crush complex problems by pulling in all the relevant experts at the right time.

Coaching Leadership

Being Wrong

Count the number of times that you admit to getting it wrong. Pull out a piece of paper and make a tally of every time you say “I’m wrong”. Half marks if you think it but just say it, bonus points for putting it out there in a conversation where you are the leader in the room.

If you are regularly hitting zero, then you’ve not got the right balance for learning fast. You aren’t pushing enough, you’re stuck in the comfort zone and you aren’t making much progress. It’s also important to check in here with how honest you are being. Reflect fully on the past and make sure that hubris is not setting you up for a fall. Retelling the story to make you right from day 1 is not going to support your desire for growth.

If you are just thinking it, then you need to make some more space to fail. You’ve got into the space of learning, and assuming you are changing your behaviour or actions then it’s a good start. To make it great, you need to build the safety in the group to willing to admit to being wrong. That’ll speed up the learning journey for all of you, building more momentum for change.

The bonus points for doing it in a leadership context come because you are setting the example for behaviours you want to see. If you want people to innovate, to take risks and to learn, then you need to show that with your actions. Own it when it goes wrong, show people how you are changing and be a role model for that behaviour. Remember, as the leader in the room, you are always being closely studied for signs of how to be successful.

Finally, if you are always admitting to being wrong, dial it back a bit. There’s certainly a balance to be found here, where “always” is as bad as “never”. Try highlighting 4-5 positive things for each negative, and make sure that hitting one small mistake doesn’t turn an overall success into something you were totally wrong about.

If you’re never wrong, you aren’t learning.


The Shimmy

In Rugby (warning, lots of sporting analogies ahead), there’s an important restart known as a line-out, where the Hooker (US readers, that’s probably not what you think it is) thows the ball back in to the field of play, and both teams compete to catch it to regain possession.

As with all contests, there’s a long list of rules governing what’s considered acceptable in the game, as the ideal outcome is a fair contest. The Hooker stands at the point the ball went out of play, the teams line up spaced evenly apart. The ball must be thrown in straight, and so on. Break a rule, you give away a penalty and the other team takes possession, with a large advantage in territory.

Now, given that a particular player is throwing the ball in, there’s an expected advantage to one side. It’s a fair contest, but it’s not a 50/50 battle.

The Hooker will also, 100% of the time, undertake a small shimmy towards the players on their team. Watch out for it on coverage, once seen it’s never missed.

This is a piece of gamesmanship that the officials turn a blind eye to, assuming it’s not incredibly blatant. Why do they do this, why don’t referee’s fully enforce the rules?

It’s a complex and fast moving situation with lots of players involved, everyone is trying to steal a few inches, so ruthlessly enforcing this rule would lead to lots of time penalising infractions, rather than playing the game.

The officials are incentivised to enforce the rules, but that’s only in service of a larger incentive to create a free flowing, fast and above all exciting game for the participants and the fans. So they overlook the little things where doing so works in favour of hitting the more significant goal of having a great game.

To bring it back to you, where can you put in the shimmy? What’s the small action that you can take that serves the greater good rather than the immediate short-term outcome?

Coaching Leadership

Learn Fast

Fail fast is a common and popular refrain in certain circles. It’s something you’ll hear from a lot of people as they are busy shouting about “pivots” and other sudden changes of direction.

It’s a useful approach, but it’s easy to miss the point by taking it at face value. If you just keep throwing out ideas, trying them and failing, then all you’ll end up doing over time is building up to a big failure. That’s not a positive outcome.

Instead, think about what you are learning from every effort. The goal is to then design activities so you get to learn something quickly, to feed into the next cycle. This puts focus back onto the positive iteration, skipping the sometimes negative tones of failure.

Sometimes, the thing that you learn is that your idea was not right. That’s a great outcome so long as you’ve learnt something, and use it to make your next effort better.

So learn fast, pivot with meaning and build your momentum with positive iterations.



The value of planning is the process, it’s very rarely the plan itself.

An effective planning process drives out the complexity of what you are trying to achieve. It shows you the priority, who needs to get involved and where the difficulties may be. You also get to say what you aren’t going to do, which is especially valuable before you’ve invested a lot of effort.

One quick test for effectiveness, check the level of detail you are working to, and measure it against the scope and duration of the plan. If the scope is more than a couple of weeks, then anything talking about specific days or people is too much detail to be useful. By the time you are looking at a year, then the plan is more of a strategy, and you are better placed to think about a focus of effort and the outcomes you are chasing, rather than the specific things and order they will be done.

Once you’ve built a plan, get ready to rip it up. Things change, and the only thing that’s uncertain is how quickly they will change. If you stick dogmatically to the plan, you’ll quickly find yourself chasing dates that don’t make sense, or pushing for features that are no longer needed.

The most painful failed projects are those that treat the initial plan as a rigid structure, rather than a guide towards a potential future.

Still, keep cycling through the planning process. Take in what you’ve learnt, what’s been completed and consider what’s changed. This means you are not starting from scratch each time, but course correcting with more information.

Iterating is key, especially in a fast moving environment. If you find planning a chore, then doing it little and often should cure this feeling. If you plan by six-month cycles, try cutting it to three and I’m sure you’ll get a better outcome.

Create your plan, throw it away when it’s no longer helping!


Try it on for size

Once you’ve got the hang of gracefully accepting the gift of feedback, then consider a next step of trying it on for size. In the corporate world, we get a lot of “constructive” feedback, which is code for something the feedback giver thinks you aren’t doing particularly well.

The first reaction is the defensive denial, which we’re moving beyond thanks to the practice of graceful acceptance.

The next stage is the long form denial and rationalisation. That’s where we find some other reasons to discard the feedback provided. It’s wrong, misguided or doesn’t match my style. Very rarely that’s 100% true. What’s more likely is that it’s not fully wrong, nor truly correct. It’s filtered through the knowledge and bias of the feedback giver, so it’s right for them, but not quite right for you.

Speaking from personal experience, telling them where they are wrong doesn’t work! It’s a second order failure of the graceful acceptance model, it’s just delayed a bit from the initial sharing of the feeedback.

So, instead of discarding it or telling people they are wrong, what can you do?

Just try it out.

Find some low risk scenarios to trial it. Maybe you’ve been told that your questioning style feels aggressive, but you think you are just direct. Hold off questioning in a big forum like an all hands for a while, and instead try out some softer techniques in a team meeting or other small group.

Go heavier than you feel comfortable with. You are trying this idea on for size, and you know it’s not something you 100% agree with, so it’ll be tough. If you dial up to 11, then you’ve got a fair shake of hitting a 7 or 8.

Think about how it felt, see if you can get any specific comments about it, compare the inside and outside views to find the truth that’s somewhere in the middle. You blend this fresh feedback with your own values and styles, and find the right change for you.

The power move is to then take this change and show it in-front of the person who’s given the constructive feedback. You’ve wrapped it in your own authentic style, so are happy. They see a change, so they are happy the feedback was taken on board.

Finally, if trying it out really doesn’t do anything for you, then you are still able to “return the gift to the shop”, fully aware you gave it a fair shot.

Coaching Leadership

Who is “They”?

An insidious tactic of someone who’s trying to disrupt your priority list is an appeal to “they”. It’s always an anonymous and shadowy group, and all that you can be sure is that “they” are important, and “they” want something.

The only way to defend against this is with a spirit of coaching, and to start following interest. Make sure to stay positive, and start out by discovering who “they” are. Is this group of people important to you and your team? Are they people that you want or need to keep happy, or are they just fishing for resources? Where do they sit in your stakeholder map?

Next up, get into the why. Why are these people coming to you? What’s stopping them going through normal channels or using their own resources to get this thing done.

Consider offering to take up the discussion directly with “they”. It’s exciting to see how often the request is actively coming from the group, versus their name used in vain to add weight to another agenda. Sometimes just asking this is enough to make the request go away entirely!

Once you give in to requests from “they”, then you’ll find your time is ever more devoted to the whims of others. With some gently probing questions, you take back the power to prioritise effectively and deliver more value sooner. Don’t let “them” win.

Coaching Leadership

Ignore It?

It’s a busy world, there’s lots of noise and it’s only getting busier and noisier. If you are getting overwhelmed by notifications, distractions and requests for “a couple of minutes” then you could try out a new technique.

What happens if you just ignore it?

This gives you an opportunity to think about if the information matters, if there’s an action for you to take or if it’s pure noise with no signal attached.

It’s a method to sort items into the Eliminate quadrant of the matrix, the things that you just aren’t going to do.

Once you’ve decided if ignoring something won’t have any major impact, the next step is to figure out the minimum amount of effort to get it off your plate for good. Repeatedly ignoring things is probably not the best strategy in a business context!

If it’s a common but low value question, then write up a document and point people towards that rather than repeatedly crafting responses. If there’s a notification that you’ll never act on, then get rid of it and drop the interruptions.

Pointless meeting? Cancel it. Weekly update that’s never read? Drop it.

As with any new approach, you’ll make some mistakes at first. Start with the slam dunks, then trial it on a few less certain things. If you go a bit far eliminating things, don’t worry too much, and bring them back (improved if possible!).

So, what happens if you just ignore it?


Work the Problem

Technologists love solving problems, it’s one of the defining characteristics that pulls people into the world of high-tech. When this desire is put towards the right ends, then it’s a powerful force for good. There are some tools and techniques that can keep you on this path, and a few traps to watch out for.

First up, be clear what the true problem is you are trying to solve. Understand what the issue is, consider who is impacted now and what will change once it’s solved. Look at the value in the solution, the costs involved in solving it and the opportunity cost of targeting this vs something else.

Taking time to build this understanding gives a proper frame to the problem. It’ll prevent a couple of the traditional mistakes we can make, things like automating the existing bad process, or only providing benefit to the noisy stakeholders who are demanding a solution right now.

Now, step away from pure technical solutions. If you stay fully in the world of software and hardware, you’ll find you default to solving all problems by just writing code. The longer you do this, the easier it is to drift away from your customers, until all you care about is the minor version of the tech stack and wringing out another micro performance update. You’ll probably place too much weight on getting rid of old software just because it’s built in a slightly outdated way, rather than moving on because it’s no longer serving a purpose.

So, look over the problem again. If you aren’t selling enough of a widget, then don’t immediately jump on updating a feature. Maybe you are not marketing it to the right people, or your copy is out of date. Is it a complex product that has a sales funnel? Can you optimise that? Are people using it correctly or is it too complex? Maybe the right solution is taking away features rather than adding more?

When you look up beyond the purely technical, you increase the overall impact you are able to have. Work with the cross-functional experts in all the disciplines relevant to the problem and you’ll always come up with a better solution. You can be confident that when you break out the development environment and start cutting code that you’ve worked the problem and that a technical solution is the right one.

Coaching Leadership


Getting better at presenting is a common theme for the people I’ve worked with. Running a great session that inspires people, drives an important decision or shares vital information can be a weekly challenge in the corporate setting.

Improving your storytelling is a great technique to take your presentation skills to the next level. Think about the type of presentation you’ll be giving, who the audience is and the one key message that you want them to take away from the session.

You can then craft your presentation around this setup, and structure the story to have the impact that you are aiming for. We’re used to telling stories, and we all understand the structure of a range of different types.

Before diving into the detail, throw together a quick storyboard. You can’t go far wrong with a three-act structure, consider something like:

  1. Layout the problem – Why should the audience care?
  2. Give some options for the solution – What path might we take?
  3. Pick the best one – Resolve the situation.

Flex the structure for your own particular situation and the style of presentation.

Once you’ve got it roughed out, run through it with broad brushstrokes. Think about how it feels. Refine it if you need to.

Now you can go into the details. Grab some relevant numbers and the data that you need. Humanise the story with specific individuals. Showing how an option will impact an entire population may not be as effective a story as showing how it will impact a specific person or group.

Next up, get into the editing phase. You tell a tighter story by cutting out pieces that don’t contribute to the narrative. Similarly you make your presentation stronger by cutting sections that don’t build towards that key takeaway.

Finally, practice the flow until you are comfortable. You tell good stories when you know the points you are hitting well. A well polished presentation will also give you confidence going into the delivery, and that’s a slam dunk boost to a better final outcome.