The best way to coach a team is…

…to coach its individuals one-to-one!

Contradiction? Well, some time ago I thought so as well, but…

Over the last years I had a few clients where, because of some constraints in the setting I was working with, I needed to “speed up” with the coaching program and “deliver” a high-performance team faster than I usually did.

Learning the mechanics of scrum, kanban or whatever we agreed to implement has never been a problem: the people I worked with are usually pretty smart and can pick up the concepts quickly, but the team building process was taking longer and, well, I just did not have so much time available.

Now the typical feedback I got from the people I was working with is that I am quite fast in reaching results, but there was the need of even more speed, so I started to apply more and more one-to-one coaching techniques as they are targeting directly a change in an individual instead of “averaging” the intervention through a group process.

coaching teams

To my surprise the teams started to grow an effective teamwork quicker than I’ve seen in the past. So I tried even more with other teams… and it kept becoming faster!

So the sky is the limit? Not really: to work in a one-to-one setting it’s paramount to understand very well the dynamics of the team and of the organisation. And it also means to be able to handle an emergent process that might in some cases reach explosion levels: I never had a team “exploding”, i.e. developing some destructive conflicts, but I reckon I came close to this a couple of times.

Also it’s very important to understand the implications of the intervention on individuals and what the systemic effect could be. This is definitely not rocket science since a team and an organisation are a complex adaptive system. I’s not possible to predict most ramifications of what could happen as a consequence of a certain action, but I found out that caring for the ecology of the interventions as well as being able to establish an effective rapport with the clients makes the risks apparently quite controllable.

But… what if I get resistance? Well… in my model of the world there is no resistance – more about it in a later post – but there are definitely some individuals that are not open to this type of work. The fact is that it’s actually not even that important: the team is a system, so the people there influence each other. By working with the willing individuals there is a measurable impact on the whole system. I gave an example in a previous post, in fact.

Steve de Shazer and his colleagues at the Brief Strategic Family Therapy in Milwaukee used to intervene on dysfunctional families even when the perceived “problem” in the family was not present because this person was not willing to work. Despite this they achieved significant results.

The reason why this way of working is so effective is that in a one-to-one setting there is a much bigger “arsenal” of tools that can be used, tools that enable change at a much deeper level than what is achievable in a group setting, especially when somebody in the group does not want/like/accept to work. Also the people who are available for a one-to-one coaching are the most motivated to change the situation, and this usually allows for a much “deeper” type of work anyway.

So I usually work with Scrum Masters and Product Owners, as they are the candidates to take a leadership role in the team, but sometimes also some developers realise they need external help and accept my support when I offer it.

At the organisational level I usually work with supportive managers who understand they have to change the way they work. Also in this case, the work done at that level changes their way of interacting with others of just a bit, but this bit usually generates new options and alternatives to the usual organisational communication paths.

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