Did That Blow Your Mind?

One of the challenges of coaching others is balance. How much do we direct and how much do we coach by way of question? When should we let our team members make mistakes and learn and when do we step in? How much is too much? This is not just a philosophical question. How we perform as coaches has a direct impact on organization performance. We never get it all right but we need to get it close enough to hit our targets. 

I’d like to talk about balance in coaching. Have you ever had a conversation that seems like it is a drink from a fire hose? Perhaps you had a boss who moved quickly through business ideas she obviously had mastered but you were having trouble hanging on to. You may have asked for a briefing from a project team and received a download of detailed information without any answer to the question, so what? Is there a way to know what is too little and how much is enough to blow your mind? 

When coaching deputies, executives need to check to determine when the balance of input is helpful to the individual. Too little content may not be of value to him. Too much content may be more than he can process at one time.  It may blow his mind! So what do we do?   

First we need to balance expediency in obtaining outcomes with learning. Often giving a person the answer may help them deliver the outcome for that set of circumstances. However if the circumstances change they may not have absorbed the tacit knowledge required for a broader application. Leaders need to determine if there is some room in the situation for allowing deputies freedom to try and learn. The degree of that freedom is what the leader will have to determine. 

Like most things, this is a continuum that ranges from tightly controlled performance requirements to some broad experimentation. Most of the time we need to get something done, but it would be nice if we could help our people grow to where our assistance was not needed as often without sacrificing outcomes.   

I am going to suggest that the use of a briefing/brief-back model can help ensure a shared understanding without overwhelming (or under informing) any participant in a communication exercise. I will describe this as if you were giving the briefing but the same applies if you are receiving it. 

Next time you are ready to give direction stop and consider this simple method of briefing and brief-back. After providing your input (briefing), ask the person to play it back to you (brief-back). Listen. Is what you hear what you briefed? If not, clarify. If it is what you intended to communicate then empower action. If it is not, either redirect (tell them again) or ask clarifying questions. The use of clarifying questions can help lead people. Retelling helps fill in gaps where overload may have contributed to content not being retained. 

If the topic seemed to carry some emotion for the receiver ask them to process what they heard and come back to brief you back. People will appreciate a chance to compose themselves and look good in front of the boss. You will get a better sense if you have the shared understanding you are looking for. 

If the briefing requires response by a team you may ask the deputy to return and do a brief-back with the team. In a team brief-back someone provides the target outcomes and gives an overview of the operational plan for obtaining that outcome. Then individual team members provide a concise description of their role in the plan. The key here is to avoid substituting form for substance.  The leader should be able to describe the high level deliverables needed to achieve the outcome. Team members in turn should be able to provide the three to five key issues they need addressed to complete their individual deliverable.   

This is a high level briefing given before works starts. It is ideally before work breakdown has been finalized. The emphasis is on a shared understanding on what will be accomplished and the key resources roles in accomplishing it. At the end, leaders should have a good sense of whether the team has a shared understanding of the outcome and how they will deliver it. Save the presentation decks and project management software for tactical deployment. This is a calibration discussion between the team and the executive sponsoring the work. 

If there are any gaps or inconsistencies now is the time to discuss them prior to beginning the work. The team should then make modifications to their briefing documents to capture any adjustments. This becomes the specification defining the innovation space (outcomes versus resources) in which the team will perform.  

As a recipient of a briefing you may want to just say, “Let me play back what I heard you tell me.” Brief-back what you heard in your words and listen to the response. 

Developing the expectation that team members brief-back on key communication items can prevent “mind blowing” experiences. It also helps all participants develop a concise style of communication that encourages a critical discussion of issues. Forging a shared understanding early can prevent a lot of remedial coaching further down the road.