Are You A Thief-Coach? Agile Coaching By Invitation & Not-Safe-To-Fail Situations

Don’t do this to your teams.

Remember when you were a kid, and were in the middle of doing something you were excited about, and an adult came along to tell you what you should do next?

Remember how deflating and frustrating that felt?

Coaches, this is what happens to teams and people when you offer help they haven’t asked for: You are stealing from them. You are a thief-coach.

You are assuming that your insights are somehow new to your audience, instead of respecting that they may (and probably have) already thought of what you have thought of, and have tried some variation (or are about to). If you offer a solution that they were already about to try, you are taking away their self-organization – because now that idea is no longer theirs. It just became yours. Remember the kid who was about to do something amazing? Yeah, you just ruined their motivation to do that amazing thing because you inadvertently stole ownership.

Even offering coachy observations to someone who hasn’t asked for them can be damaging. Doing so can come across as condescending or ignorant of the full picture of what is happening in a team. It can cost you credibility, one of the most important things you need to be an effective coach. If your observations fail to resonate with your audience – or are just plain wrong – it can alienate you from the team, making future coaching interactions less impactful.

This all begs the oft-recurring question: If I’m not invited, how do I coach?

I prefer to deal with this issue from a delivery perspective, and reframe the question into:

How does a coach balance ensuring successful delivery against giving teams the space to safely fail?

The answer should not be “coaches aren’t responsible for delivery” – in my experience, coaches can certainly be responsible for delivery without compromising their commitment to the team’s health and safety; in fact, it is essential that coaches do feel that responsibility if they want to coach in the most effective way.

When coaches do not consider themselves responsible for delivery, it becomes harder to identity those experiments that really are “safe to fail” versus those that are not. Teams may go on failing for too long, with too many things, before leadership and the team realize essential course correction is necessary to save the project and restore trust with the customer.

To determine whether a team is trying something that is safe to fail at, a coach who cares about delivery should ask:

If this experiment fails, is the impact to delivery acceptable?
Do we feel comfortable sharing this experiment with our customer?

If the answer to either of these questions is “no” then this is not a safe-to-fail experiment. You may have a serious problem – one that, as a trusted coach with credibility, with context and strong relationships within the team, and with skin in the game for delivery, you can more quickly and effectively recognize and then help the team to correct.

In summary: If you are a coach who is deeply invested in the successful delivery of your team, the issue of coaching by invitation becomes less critical. You would already have established your value to the team over time by being present, engaged, listening and asking good questions. That way, you can more readily recognize a serious problem (and avoid making mountains out of molehills). When the time comes for addressing a serious problem, you are not lamenting your lack of invitation (or worse, trying to coach without one) – you will already be so valuable to the team that your opinion on how to improve a not-safe-to-fail situation will be thoroughly informed, credible, and welcome.

One thought on “Are You A Thief-Coach? Agile Coaching By Invitation & Not-Safe-To-Fail Situations

  1. You hit it right on the head with this post. I’ve had it happen to me have seen it happen to co-workers. It can be a morale killer because you feel your ideas aren’t taken seriously until it come from the mouth of the “trusted advisor”. Credit should be given where it’s die.


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