Coaching - Mindset Or Practices

Hi Folks. I know I'm supposed to start my series on agile culture today but I'll be taking my regular holiday blog break very soon and I'd rather not start the series then have a long break between posts. So, I'll start that series in the new year and drop in a quick post that has been inspired by an ongoing discussion at work. The discussion is around coaching approach - do we coach practices or do we coach mindset?

A circle of arrows leading from one word bubble to another with actions on the arrows. The word bubbles are Behavior, Perspective and Mindset. Behavior changes Perspective which impacts Mindset, which affects Behavior.

As context, we are in a large organisation and, as most agile programs do, have started by coaching largely around practices. The discussion is around whether we should switch from practices coaching to mindset coaching. One of the coaches posted a picture on our coaching WhatsApp group (apologies for the quality, I don't have an original source)

The comment was "it's time to move from behaviour to mindset". Let's unpack that a little.

Coaching behaviours (practices) has some benefits - it's easy to measure. It's easy to do. It has immediate results. Coaching practices only is a bit of a "build it and they will come" approach - do the practices and understanding will follow.

The problem is that without the mindset changes to back it up, all you get is adherence to a new process rather than the deeper change that we are after. The argument from the practices crowd is that by changing behaviour, you will change mindset. I tend to disagree. Without explicit mindset coaching, organisations never really develop that deeper understanding.

On the other hand, the mindset crowd say that by coaching mindset, practices and results will follow. In this case, teach it (or often preach it) and they will change. Again, this isn't the reality. You can give people as much knowledge as you like, but until you get them started, they are likely to remain stuck in old patterns. There are many reasons for this - fear of change, old reward systems in place, and plain old inertia.

People generally don't spontaneously change behaviour in response to new knowledge. They need to be shown how to apply that new knowledge in practical ways. So both approaches on their own are flawed.

So what to do? Many people advocate a cyclic approach - "it's time to move to mindset". Start with coaching one, usually practices, then (when it's time) shift to the other. Do some practices for a while, then coach on mindset for a while, then back to practices and so on. That's a better approach than just one or the other but I think there's an even better way.

Don't think of that diagram as a series of states to move through one by one. Think of it instead as a feedback loop. Behaviour affects perception, which affects mindset, which affects behaviour and so on. Done right, it's a self reinforcing loop. Changing one thing can have an immediate impact on the others. Improving one improves the others. Provided there is guidance in all three areas.

If you just focus on one area, the feedback loop is broken. It's no longer self reinforcing. If you just coach in the behaviour space, behaviour changes but you don't get that flow through into perception and mindset. If you just coach mindset, you don't get the flow through to behaviour. The system gets stuck. Unless the people you are coaching are self aware enough to make the connections themselves, in which case they probably don't need coaching.

What we need is a balanced approach. Close the loop. Coach practices and at the same time work on the perceptions and translate that into mindset shifts. Coach mindset and back that up with concrete practices to reinforce the mindset. Get that feedback loop running.

I do hear from people who say "but I'm a practices person...I can't coach mindset". To that I say - "Bollocks!" You don't need a psychology degree to do mindset coaching (although it can help). All you need is one word - Why.

Why connects the practice to the thinking behind it. Why do we do standups? Is it to give a status update to management? No, it's to get the team communicating internally. Why is that important? Because it allows the team to collaborate on the work. Why is local collaboration important? Can't we just make all the decisions in the management layer like we used to? Because it lets decisions happen where the information is; it's faster, more effective and it empowers teams. Why are empowered teams important? And so on.

Digging into those layers of why is the start of mindset coaching. You can go deeper and start talking about action logics and developmental models and so on, but to get started, all you need is Why.

Even better, as you explore each layer of why, change the practice to show that why and reinforce the learning. If you are talking about collaboration, try an experiment with pairing, or gather the team in a room for a hackathon or something to show the power of increased collaboration.

Coach the whole cycle. Not just part of it. Close the loop.