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Coaching Leadership

Is it Better?

“Change is easy, improvement is far more difficult” – Dr. Ferdinand Porsche

When we make a change, we want to make things better. However, it’s not always easy to ensure that the change is actually positive overall. How can you increase the chances of actually making an improvement?

Good news, there’s a set of simple (not easy!) steps you can follow to vastly improve the odds on hitting that improvement you are seeking.

First, be very clear what the problem is. Write it down. State it in the simplest possible terms, which means you might need to refine it several times. Get specific, watch out specifically for weak or ambiguous terms. “We’re slow” is a very weak problem “We consistently take twice as long as our initial estimate to launch a product” is much stronger.

When you have a strongly stated problem, you can then work on what that improvement would look like. Do you want to improve your estimates, reduce the actual shipping time even if the estimates are still bad, or do something else entirely?

Next up, get explicit about what you are willing to spend to seek improvement. Are you going to invest more resources? Drop something that’s not important or high value? Maybe even make something else harder or not as great as it used to be?

Now you get to start trying things. You’ve got a framework to know if you are going in the right direction, and the guardrails to correct if it’s not going well. This is where the change gets to be implemented. Be as brave or incremental as needed for your problem and constraints, but be ready to measure and correct as you go.

Before making each change, record your hypothesis. “By doing this, I believe that we will move X to Y”. Take the actions, measure the impact and review against the hypothesis. If it’s going well, then keep it up! If not, don’t be afraid to cut the initiative and return to the status quo to try again.

Put in the effort to bring clarity to your proposed change, add the effort to measure as you go, and you are much more likely to find that improvement you seek.

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Coaching Leadership

Artisan or Inventor

Do you prefer to create brand new things, or to refine a craft?

Having just told you not to box yourself in, I thought I’d explore a preference that divides up a lot of creative people (which includes pretty much anyone, but should be relevant to the people in my audience who are building software products ).

Artisans love to refine things, to build the perfect example of their craft. Think of really well put together pieces of furniture, excellently shaped vases or refined and complex mechanical watches. They practice, they get better. The artisan will create many things, and probably never acknowledge a single completed item as perfect.

Inventors go all out. They may have a stunning success or a miserable failure, but they’ll go for it anyway. They probably only enjoy getting to the end of a project and creating the first thing. They don’t go back around to improve, they pickup a new idea and go again.

It’s a preference, so sometimes you’ll flick between the two approaches. If you’re in artisan mode and work with an inventor, then sparks can fly (and vice versa!). A great collaboration can come into being if you recognise this early. Let the inventor rip up the rule book, create a wild prototype and then the artisan can refine towards perfection.

You might think that an artisan is just siphoning energy from their flywheel of change while the inventor is draining it rapidly. That might be true in some situations, but the effort and focus required by a master artisan to strive for perfection is just as significant and draining.

So what’s your preference?

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Coaching

Don’t Box Yourself In

Personality tests are all about putting yourself into a nice little box. They are designed to sort everyone into a small set of groups, so you can describe them, describe yourself and get an idea of how those two types might interact.

The most valuable piece of advice I can give you is to only take what’s valuable from these tests, don’t let them define you. They might show you a preference, or behaviours that you lean towards in certain situations, but they don’t outline your whole being.

Meyers-Briggs is a very famous example of the type. It can be very helpful to put labels of Thinking or Feeling to your general preference, but it’s almost certainly unhelpful to state “I’m an INFP, so I can’t do that well”.

If you do feel boxed in, try breaking out. Think about a time or situation where you’ve done the opposite of what a personality test suggests. What was the scenario? How did it feel? When might you do it again? Did this let you round off a weakness or maybe balance out an overuse of a strength?

Taking the valuable parts lets you continue to grow and drive towards your goals. Pushing past the box means you aren’t limited by the strictures of the test but are able to achieve powerful outcomes that matter to you.

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Coaching

This or That?

A few days ago, I was observing a coaching practice session. The coachee was very generous, they would answer any question with a long and extremely complete answer. The coach was keen to probe into these answers and focus on the areas that were most important to the coachee.

“Do you want to do this or that?” – A common mistake from a novice coach trying to bring focus to the conversation.

When you use this approach, you are limiting the coachee to a couple of options that you have selected, and you are using your words to channel the conversation.

Imagine you ask the coachee “Do you want to go left or right?”. You have closed off the possibility of them continuing straight ahead, pausing for a while or maybe even turning around and taking another route!

When you present a binary choice, then the usual answer is one of those options, even if that wasn’t the best choice for the coachee, or it loses a lot of nuance in the answer.

Instead, gain the focus you seek by asking the coachee to tell you what’s most important to them. You can summarise back the various options they’ve provided, and use words like specific or one to build the focused response.

  • Which one of these is most important to you?
  • What specifically is the area you’d like to focus on?
  • You’ve mentioned five things, which of those is your top concern?
  • If you could only change one of these, which would it be?

All of these questions leave the power with the coachee to choose and provide the focus. You haven’t forced them to a particular channel, but you will move the conversation forwards!

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Coaching Leadership

Follow Through

When you agree on an action, you need to make sure you put in the follow through to be sure it actually happens.

It’s especially important to remember this if responsibility is one of your key strengths. It’s very easy to assume that because you will always do everything you say you will, that everyone else will always hold themselves to that standard.

The follow throughs will be different depending on the person, the actions, the length of time to complete and the importance of completing them. You need to make sure that you balance the need for follow through against the tendency towards micromanagement.

I like to use a model of “trust but verify”. Your default position is that the action will be completed as agreed, but as the person eventually accountable, you will check-in on progress.

If you are going to use a formal check-in model, then agree it up front with the actions. I’ve worked with people who want to improve their public speaking skills, in that sort of long lived objective, I’ve then agreed monthly check-ins, to find out what sort of presentations they’ve been giving, the feedback they’ve had and what they are doing based on it. This formal agreement is super useful to make sure the goal is not forgotten, or people try and leave any activity until right before the final review.

For shorter term follow throughs, they can be more informal. Ask “How is X progressing?”, dig in a little bit more with “What’s left to do?”. By asking what’s left, you get a real view on the final 20%, which is a lot more useful than a brief “all on track” or similar.

If it makes sense, grab a demo or draft view, that makes the progress concrete. Give some warning on this, so it’s not a surprise. That’ll also give the person a chance to get the draft together if they’ve not picked it up yet.

Finally, make sure that your check-in is not left until just before a deadline. Reviewing the day before doesn’t give much chance to make any corrections or complete actions, it’s no fun doing homework on the bus, so avoid that feeling by making sure good progress is made early.

Following through is an important leadership skill, so practice until it’s natural and you’ll really drive the effectiveness of everyone you are working with.

Categories
Coaching

Overnight Success

Most overnight successes are built on top of years of effort. I’m certain this is an old idea, but I’ll credit my first encounter with it to the wonderful Seth Godin.

It’s almost always a matter of exponential growth, the hockey stick suddenly tipping upwards. You won’t have heard of them when they are known by ten people, or a hundred, or a thousand, but when it’s tens or hundreds of thousands and doubling all the time, then it seems like they’ve come out of nowhere.

Getting through the early stages is the grind. It’s where you need to keep on pushing to put energy in the flywheel. For the longest time, you’ll feel little impact, just getting a few views, a couple of clients or selling something every so often.

To build to that overnight success, you need to keep pushing. Figure out what is working, what actions get you just a few more of what you want, and do more of it. To gain that learning, you’ll need to throw a lot of things out into the wind, and most of them will not stick.

That can be pretty demoralising, the ones you get wrong always feel a bit painful. When you hit this, don’t dwell on it. Look instead to what you’ve learnt, try again with that new information and keep building momentum.

Put in the effort and time, and you can become an overnight success.

Categories
Coaching Leadership

What’s Number 1?

You can only have one top priority.

There’s always lots of important things going on, there’s always a lot of demands on your time and there will always be more than you are able to do.

So, you’ve got to be really clear on what is the top priority at any given time.

The advice is particularly valuable if you work in a team with lots of different stakeholders, or even just one who’s very demanding. As much at they might want to have 5 top priority “must do” items, there is actually a list in order from 1 to 5.

As a leader, one of the major strands of your role is teasing out that ordering. You need to manage the list and set expectations across stakeholders. You want to be pointing your team at item number 1, especially if it’s “important but not urgent”.

A physical list of priority items is a powerful tool. When a stakeholder requests a change, or shares more about the value of an item lower down the list, then you can show them the impact of moving something up, and how it moves other things down.

This approach is particularly valuable as you gain active engagement from the stakeholder. They aren’t able to assume you are working on both the old and new number 1 priorities in parallel. The physical list allows you to document the change, so you’ve covered the case of any accidental misalignment as well.

With a single number 1 priority, you’re then able to focus effort towards the top most important thing, and ensuring that if anything doesn’t get done then it’s less important than what does get completed.

Don’t lose focus, show your working and make sure there’s only one number 1.

Categories
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.

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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.

Categories
Coaching

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?