Monday, 15 April 2013

Coaching: How Not What

Yesterday evening I was playing a game of 5-a-side football (soccer to my American readers) with some friends. One of the players on my team was a particularly competent player who was also very vocal in offering advice to his team mates on what to do.

For example, when a player from the opposing team was approaching me with the ball he would offer sage advice such as "Don't let them get past you!". This was rather stating the obvious, as I was quite clearly not planning on letting the opponent go past me and take a clear shot on goal.

In this particular situation my challenge was not in knowing what I should do, but in having the skill and experience necessary to carry out the task. No amount of shouted commands were suddenly going to increase my skill to a level beyond that which I currently possess.

This got me thinking about how we coach people in programming and agile practices. How often do we say to someone something like "that needs to be refactored" or "you need to keep your functions small"? Or, we might say to an agile team "don't overcommit yourselves this sprint". All of these are instructions to do something, made with the assumption that the people receiving them have the skill and experience necessary to carry out the actions.

What if, like me on the football field, the recipients of these instructions knows what they should do, but not how to do it. Clearly we are not being successful coaches in these cases. We need to focus much more on the how rather than the what. Advice offered should be enabling, providing the recipient with a way of learning and gaining experience.

For example, "if you pull this bit of code out into a separate function then this loop becomes much simpler" is much more helpful than "that needs to be refactored".

As coaches we need to be mindful of how we communicate in order to improve the people under our guidance. It's very easy to let it slip and just become another player shouting advice to those who haven't yet gained the skill necessary to implement that advice.