The case for coaching

Roger Federer is one hell of a tennis player.  As of this post, he has 17 Grand Slam titles – the most of any man in history – and is regarded by some as the best tennis player in the world.  For those unfamiliar with the world of tennis, Roger has a signature move called “Sneak Attack By Roger” or SABR in which he charges his opponent while receiving the serve and hits a return on the run.  It is as devastating as it is disruptive to traditional tennis play.  The move came about under the tutelage of Severin Luthi in 2015 when Roger was 34 years old – a dinosaur by professional athlete standards.  But it worked.  It stuck.  And it is now a staple for him in international play.

“At the end of practice we were just kidding around almost. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to chip and charge and just keep the points short. I’m tired. I want to get off the court soon anyway. That’s when I started to run in and hit returns. I hit a couple for a winner. They were ridiculous.

“He laughed, I laughed, Severin laughed. Then I did it again in the next practice just to see if it actually would still work again. Then I tried it the next practice and it still worked.

“That’s when Severin said, ‘Well, what about using it in a match?’ I was like, ‘Really?’ “So he pushed me to keep using it and not shy away from using it in big moments.”

So at a point in his career where most players are hanging up the shoes and doing the promotional tour phase, Roger and Seve are leveraging a coach relationship to reinvent the return game.

Thats the beauty of coaching – it is not a practice to instruct the remedial/subservient on the mechanics of how to execute a task.  It is a personal relationship that allows for amazing outcomes to emerge.  World class people recognize and leverage coaching relationships to keep them competitive well beyond the typical shelf life, but in industry we continue to struggle to foster and culture the craft of coaching.

As a proponent of coaching, I wrap a lot of requisite skills into the two words “agile coach”:

  • Engaged master of listening
  • Patient observer
  • Facilitator
  • Functional chameleon – business, technical, industry domain knowledge
  • Cultural change agent
  • and experience based mastery of lean/agile principles and practices

The Agile Coaching Institute has introduced a model that many in the industry have seen which I fundamentally agree most appropriately visualizes this emerging role:


As is typically the case, we focus on the what and how with laser precision, and forget to start with why.  In my experience, organizations have a Palovian like reaction to the need for change.  Hire a consultant, create KPOs, execute training, declare successful transformation for a while; rinse, repeat.  There is research that shows training alone allows for about 22% productivity increase while training supported by coaching increases productivity by 88%.  Organizations that are looking to create real change and progress must start taking an enterprise view of building a coaching competency.

Research by the International Personnel Management Association (IPMA), concluded “ordinary training typically increased productivity by 22%, while training combined with life coaching increased productivity by 88%”.

When assessing how to apply an lean/agile coach, an organization has many options, including:

  • Full-time internal coach
  • Matrixed internal coach
  • External coach as part of agile transformation
  • Hired gun – external agile coach specialized in supplementing organizations of need

Each of these options will have pros and cons.  Factors to consider when making the coaching plan include, immediacy of need, internal skills available, size/scope of coaching engagement, organizational stability and maturity, and funding plan.  As an internal agile coach, I have a bias towards bullets 1 and 2 with a leaning towards the full-time internal coach.  To have this become a reality, you need an experienced lean-agile practitioner that can create a change-based value proposition from the C-level down to the team level.  There must be an agreed to coaching stance that binds the coach to the organization and a vision by which the coaching is pointed.  At scale, no one person can facilitate coaching internationally and spread across dozens or hundreds of teams.  From experience, by golden number of effective coaching relationships is 4-7 teams with and expiration of about 2 years.

An effective person placed in an environment of scaled inefficiency becomes waste.  As lean thinkers we are committed to removing waste, so increasing this is a cardinal sin.  An over-committed coach will create waste in the form of limited understanding and interactions and having a diluted message.  I do not know of a formal case study in the “ideal coaching:team ratio” (if you do, please comment), but experience tells me you are limited to about 20-35 people or 5-7 properly sized agile teams.  Again drawing from experience this is about the size of most business units/programs.  When an organization needs coaching at a larger level than this, the center-of-excellence or coaching-consortium conversation emerges.

Another hypothesis I am working on is the diminishing return impact of an lean/agile
coach.  As is the case with any team changes, you go through Tuckman’s stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing.  But an agile coach has another layer of focus – impact.  I have seen a pattern emerge where a coach gains rapid impact with a team within a year, then the message and effectiveness wanes over time.  Typically, a coach should rotate assignments within 2 years to optimize impact.  There is something to be drawn from the freshness of a message coupled with the familiarity bias that develops over the duration of a team-to-coach relationship.  It is known that you should not disrupt the construct of agile teams whenever possible, but the coach tends to operate at a level above the core agile team structure, aligning those teams to the corporate vision, so creating a framework that supports assignment based relationships should not impact team engagement or throughput.

As for Roger; he recently celebrated his 1000th win and took home the 2015 Wimbledon Cup.  He continues to have storied battles with Novak Djokovic, the current world number 1, 5 years his junior.