Book Review Coaching Leadership

The Advice Trap

Michael Bungay Stanier gives us The Advice Trap, a guide to understanding your default advice giving behaviours, and a range of techniques to tame them. Instead, he suggests you stay curious for longer, and Michael shows you why that’s important.

It’s another short and punchy book, very much in the mould of The Coaching Habit. It’s not quite a sequel, but it certainly builds on the ideas of the previous book and you might take more from The Advice Trap if it’s not the first MBS book you pick-up.

It’s very much positioned towards leaders rather than pure coaches, and it encourages you towards behaviours that allow your leadership to become more coach-like.

We start with a whistle-stop tour of why giving advice is not a great default position, and how it kills off the Drive of the people you are giving advice to. Next up, we learn a bit about Easy vs Hard change, and how giving less advice is certainly in the “Hard change” bucket.

You get to explore whether you are a Tell-It, Save-It or Control-It type person, although you will probably recognise a bit of all of them in you. I certainly did!

We look at a ways to deflect each of these behaviours to become more coach-like, and also get to see the pain of each type of advice monster. Tell-It means you jump in too early and give answers to the first problem, not the biggest one, Control-It means you avoid risk, so don’t explore new and different ideas, and so on.

You get a whirlwind summary of the Coaching Habit, either as a great summary or enough context to catch-up up if you’ve not read it.

The practical advice continues, digging into a lot of Foggifiers, the tactics and pitfalls that people deploy to get away from the hard work of coaching and bringing about change. You’ll recognise all these behaviours, whether it’s deflecting to other people rather than working on what you can control, or going so big picture you can’t find something that’s actually available to be changed.

We also bring in the TERA quotient, Tribe, Expectation, Rank and Autonomy. By lifting these up, you gain more engagement, and are more likely to then get to great outcomes and big change.

The rest of the book is really about practising and cementing these skills, everything from being generous to finding ways to drop in even more of the coach-like behaviours.

There’s also a bonus chapter of advice on when it’s good to use advice! As leaders we need to know when it’s right to use a range of techniques, and whilst advice is likely to be an overused tool, it’s no good going so far the other way that you never use it.

This is another great book for leaders who want to strengthen their coaching muscles. It’s a quick read that you can dip back into whenever you need to, and the exercises and self-reflection tasks are really powerful ways to take even more from it!

Coaching Leadership

Exponential Starts Slow

When you are looking for any sort of compounding growth, it’s really important to remember that it starts off really slowly. If you look at any curve, you see that most of the growth occurs at the end of the interval.

That’s why you need to take the motivational posts about small efforts with a big pinch of salt. Growing by 1% every day for year does indeed get you to 37x from where you started, but getting to double will take you 70 days, rather than the 10 you’d expect if it was growing in a straight line.

So, you start off slow. It feels hard, and it doesn’t feel like you are making much progress. That’s why I like to think about the Flywheel in this early phase.

When you know the early efforts will be hard, it’s easier to keep pushing. Build up that momentum with an early shove, then you can maintain and grow over time with the same push.

If you don’t immediately see 10x growth, then don’t be disheartened. Look for the positive progress and hold on to the those incremental gains. See it getting easier, and the process of change becoming a habit. Do that, and you’ll get over the slow start, and the growth will come.

Coaching Leadership

You Don’t Have One Problem Anymore

When you only have one problem, it’s almost certainly got an approachable solution. It might not be easy, and it might take a while to get there, but you will likely be able to see a path to get to where you need to be.

This can often be the state of play when you are working at the level of a single team. You have one big overriding problem to deal with at a time, you figure it out, then you solve it.

As you take on more responsibility, the chances that you are dealing with just a single problem become vanishingly small. Working across a group of teams, you quickly find that each team has their own problems, whether that’s product, project or people issues. There’s also things going on in the wider world, across the organisation and even inside your own department.

Now you need to work with different strategies. These problems are going to be linked to one another, so working on one could make another worse. You won’t be able to solve them all, so you need to figure out where to put your focus. Things will change, so you need to be ready to adapt to what’s coming.

  • Understand – Look at everything that’s a problem right now. Figure out the Important or Urgent ones, delegate or ignore the rest.
  • Relate – Put together problems that are related. If working on one impacts another then you need to understand that relationship.
  • Communicate – If people feel their problems are being ignored, then they will feel that those problems are unsurmountable. Let them know where the focus is, and why.

Keep going through this process on a regular basis. You’ll solve a few problems, some will get more important and need more focus. Some might just go away!

There’s a lot more that you need to do when working at the higher level. You don’t just have a single big problem any more, and you need to recognise that to succeed.

Coaching Leadership


There are a number of times in your life where it’s really important to get across the impact of what you have done, in a way that’s really easy for others to understand.

In the corporate world, there’s a few key points where you want to get this right. It’s on your CV, it’s during annual reviews and it’s when you are preparing a promotion pack or for an internal move.

Many people will make one of two key mistakes. They’ll either focus too heavily on what they did, going too deep into their responsibilities. Other times they will make their impact really opaque, something that makes sense to them, but is really dense to any external reader.

You need to fight both of these, and really highlight the Impact!

There’s a really simple trick to beat these problems, and make sure that you stand out from the crowd. You just need to look over any statement you make, pretend you are someone who doesn’t have great context over your work, and ask “So What?”.

“I upgraded all our systems from v1 to v2”. – So What?

“By upgrading all of our systems, I reduced page loading times by 50%, increasing conversion by 5% and driving an additional ┬ú1 million in annual revenue”. – Wow!

It can be tough to get into this habit, so there’s a couple of tips you can use to help:

  1. Read your statements out loud. It helps you to see that they flow, and if they feel simple to understand
  2. Pretend to be someone else. Read the statements as if it was your CEO. If it doesn’t make sense, get rid of some jargon and go again
  3. Actually get someone else to read the docs. If they don’t understand the impact, edit until they do.

This technique will get you noticed. Practicing this skill will make it easier.

Show off your Impact, and people will understand why you are the right person for the opportunity.

Leadership Uncategorized


The more often people ask “When?”, the less likely you are to be working in an Agile organisation.

If we’re building a software product using an agile model, then every day we’ll have the latest version ready, with all the most important features complete and the team working on the next most important. The choice is always with the organisation, they can launch what they have, or wait for another iteration.

If the conversation is always “When will it be finished?”, then you are thinking about projects, about things that don’t evolve with feedback, and most of all, something that has a fixed view of what’s considered good.

It’s much better to get that initial launch out early, and start to update quickly based on the actual activity of real users. That validates the assumption you made early on, or disproves them really quickly. It means that you waste the smallest amount of effort as you correct quickly.

I usually find that Marketing are a major asker of “When?”, there’s often a longer lead time with some channels, and they want to plan in a fixed way to account for these timelines. They aren’t able to move away from these processes, so you have to find some ways to mitigate the questioning.

There’s two techniques that I’ve found to be helpful (and that also work with anyone asking When?).

First up, move away from specific features. Switch up the conversation, and show what problems are being solved for your users. This lets you focus more on the overall value of the package, and sell the solution rather than any particulars that might not yet be complete.

Second, if features are important, take the conversation back to what’s already been done. Show off everything that’s available today. If you are experimenting with features before they reach prime-time, then you can use some that are nearly ready to go. Give the Marketing team early access, particularly to winning experiments that you are working to turn into full features. With the range of access, they’ll be able to slot features into various materials depending on their own lead time needs.

Do these, and you’ll start to wind down the “When?”, and get back into the agile swing of things.



There’s not much that tests your communication skills as quickly as building furniture. It’s something that can seem simpler than it actually ends up being. It needs more than one person to do effectively, and those people usually have different levels of experience to bring to the activity.

Firstly, you should read the instructions. Look at all the stages and each detail of those steps. This brings out any assumptions and smooths them over. This first activity starts to balance out those gaps in experience.

Next you arrange your tools and make sure you’ve got everything you need. This lets you agree some terms upfront, building your shared language and ensuring early understanding of term.

Then you talk early, before starting a particular action. You are sharing expectations early, rather than hoping that someone figures out what you want after you’re already straining under the load of a heavy lump of wood. Trying to share meaning in stressful situations is hard, and often just raises the stress.

So, to communicate well you should:

  1. Uncover assumptions early
  2. Agree terms and their meanings
  3. Set expectations before it gets stressful

This wont just help you put furniture together more easily, it’ll make you more effective in any situation where you need to communicate something important.

Coaching Leadership


The desire for perfection often stops us taking that first step. Once we accept that nothing is perfect, that’s it’s valuable to learn from an initial effort, and that “better than before” is so much better than nothing, then we are able to get moving and start making positive change.

The next phase is to return to that effort and to refine what you’ve done. In technology, it’s a key way that we identify we’ve moved away from a project focus and into the more powerful product mindset. Things are never done, we can always refine them to make them better.

This is true whether it’s a product feature, a technical solution, a series of meetings, or even something like a blog post!

When you think about your refinement approach, you can try to explicitly carve out some chunks of time for improvements. This can be a tough sell, especially if your improvements aren’t as immediately visible as the next bright and shiny thing. When I sit down to write, I certainly find it easier to work on a new article than go back to an old piece to freshen it up.

Instead, you can build your refinement in to your process. Whenever you are working in an area, if you spot something out of place then take a few minutes to leave it in a better place than it was before. Cleaning as you go gives you lots of quick improvements, without big investments in tracking, remembering what you were going to do, or continually fighting to carve out this time.

For example, I’ll write and edit in a couple of passes. I schedule posting a few weeks in advance. When a post goes live I’ll check it out with fresher eyes, and use that as a chance to clean up any rogue words or phrases that aren’t as clear as I’d thought they were. If I share links, or link back to an old article, then I’ll scan through and check for updates then. It’ a much easier process than sitting down for an hour to just do edits!

So, once you’ve gotten started, and put your initial efforts out into the world, look out for opportunities to slot in improvements whenever you are back in the area. Make it routine, it’ll be easy, and you’ll quickly see the compounding benefits of these small refinements


Not Fit for Purpose

When we work in a agile fashion for long enough, we always almost encounter the “Not Fit for Purpose” complaint. I’ve certainly seen it in a number of different contexts, and depending on your organisation, you might be stuck with it almost every single day.

When we work agile, we aim to launch new iterations early and often. We are very clear that our product will not have every single feature from day one, and that it may never have every single feature a user could desire. We recognise the cost of adding and maintaining each new feature, and balance it against the benefit it brings.

“Not Fit for Purpose” raises its head when you encounter someone stuck in a closed mindset, usually a person who is looking for the perfect solution, rather than something that is better than they have today. This can really drain excitement from a new product, so you need to counteract it quickly and decisively.

Your first move is to force the complainer to get specific. Generic grousing like this is easy to do and hard to address as you are aiming at a moving target. Any justification you bring will be countered like a reed moving in the wind. Instead of letting the negativity frame the conversation, take it on. “What do you mean by that?”, “What exactly is the issue?”, “What specifically are you missing?”.

By taking the vagueness out of the conversation, you are able to squash the nebulous negativity, and move towards positive problem solving. Even asking these questions can kill off a lot of general negative feeling. People who are just complaining for the sake of it will often just go away when put on the spot like this.

Now you get to start unpicking some more genuine concerns. For the perfectionist, they may be unhappy that some features aren’t available yet, or they aren’t complete. Combat this by showing progress, and setting expectations based on the previous progress you’ve made. This challenge quite often comes from people who think in terms of projects, chopping and changing from different streams of work. They aren’t thinking in iterations, and they think that v1 is also v last.

As you’re working in an agile fashion, you’ll have previous launches to show (even if they were initially just to internal users). You’ll also have your prioritised list of future work to show. This progress is a powerful tool. If your naysayer is also your decision maker, then you can give them control by agreeing what is “Good enough”, launching when you hit it, and continuing to iterate to make it great. This is also a good point to specify and experiment, so that “Good enough” decision is driven by data, not the feelings of the perfectionist.

Also, you can use the “Is it better than what you have now?” approach. This brings you away from abstract perfection, and down to the brass tacks of the real day-to-day. It’s hard to say no to something that’s better than you have right now, even if it’s not what you want in the long run. Again, I’ve seen lots of complaints just go away when the complainer sees what they are getting is an improvement on the current status-quo, even if the gap to what they hoped for is still large.

Finally, you might have a purpose mismatch. The complainer has a different vision, or a misalignment of what’s important. What they want is not what you are going to give them. For these people you need to hear that concern, and address it by reminding them what the goals of your product are, and what the problems are you are going to solve. With this mismatch, sometimes you just have to fire a customer. If they are never going to be a good fit, then it might not be worth the effort to serve them.

To recap, “It’s not fit for purpose” is a poisonous phrase, often deployed by those who aren’t able to embrace the agile journey. You need to counter this actively to stop them sucking the energy out of your powerful change:

  1. Force them to be specific, drive out any real concerns so they can be addressed, and silence the serial complainers immediately.
  2. If it’s just “not perfect”, then show your pace of progress, and what’s coming in your next iterations.
  3. Next, agree “Good enough”, and use an experiment to put data into the decision.
  4. If your purpose doesn’t align, don’t hesitate to fire the customer, putting half your effort into 1% of your users is not a winning strategy.

Agile methods are simple, but that doesn’t mean they are easy. Watch out for these types of challenges and combat them effectively to drive significant high-value change and launch truly impactful products.

Coaching Leadership

Action Triggers

When you want to start taking steps towards change, but you are finding it hard to get going, then set yourself an action trigger to help kickstart the effort.

This is a simple mental plan to execute an action when you encounter a particular situation. It’s a great technique to help you build up or change a habit, by preloading some decisions in our mind.

It’s a simple technique. First of all, pick what you want to change. For example, you might want to show more gratitude when someone does a great job.

Next up, get specific. Exactly when and how are you going to do this? If it’s too loose, it won’t be effective in changing your behaviour. When we’re praising people, it has greatest impact close to the good activity, so you might set an trigger of “When I see someone asking a great question in a meeting, I will actively thank them for that input”.

This is good because it’s a specific situation (great question), and a specific action (thanking them). As you’ve already made this decision, you take away the concern of what “a great job” looks like, and how you’ll “show more gratitude.

When you make it easy, you are more likely to take these actions and change your behaviour. The complex processing that exhausts your Type 2 brain is dealt with ahead of time, letting you shift these changes to the quick and lazy Type 1.

If you want to be even more likely to be successful, then either say your trigger out loud, or write it down. Make the commitment public and it give you even more impetus to succeed.

This technique is not a panacea. It will only work if you want to make a change, and it will only help move you towards good behaviours. It’s not going to change your direction 180 degrees, and it’s not going to shift you fundamentally.

To make some positive change and build energy in your flywheel, setup a couple of action triggers to preload some complex decisions and make it simple when the situation occurs.


Who Benefits?

Making any kind of change is difficult, especially in a large and complex organisation.

One really useful technique is to identify who is going to benefit from the change. Think about everyone who will be impacted, ranging from customers to suppliers, your internal stakeholders to your immediate team.

If the only benefits that you identify are to you or your direct team, then you are going to be treading a long and lonely path. You may find that this kind of change is one to put on to the backburner, as it’s going to struggle to build momentum.

In the majority of cases, you’ll find some people where the costs outweigh the benefits that they’ll see, and you’ll find some who benefit more from the change than the effort it’ll cost.

Those who benefit more will be your key allies in bringing this change to bear, and should be the first people you enlist in building momentum in the group. Getting these people on board is key to success. Make sure they see the benefits that will accrue to them, and they are likely to become enthusiastic supporters of the change.

When you have that initial support, it will be easier to convince those who may be neutral towards the change, those who are neither going to gather major benefits or costs. There’s a lot of value in there being visible and vocal allies to convince others. A lone voice can be dismissed as an outlier, multiple advocates are positive reinforcement and can start to move the group.

Finally, you can start to move those who are more impacted by the change. With a range of supporters, the change is gaining momentum. There’s a point where people will start to support it to make sure they are not left behind, being part of the group is important. You might need to commit some additional effort to bring around the most impacted, but if you’ve built the platform with your supporters, it will be less than you might think.

So, find out who is going to benefit and enlist them in your change effort. Many voices will bring success more quickly than a lone effort. Show the value you’ll bring and get those supporters lined up to move the group forwards quickly.