Why you should be coaching for potential and how to do it

If you are coaching for compliance, you are doing it wrong. If you are coaching for performance, you might also not be doing it properly, depending on what performance parameters you are using. You should be coaching for potential instead.

Way to start a blog post! You are doing it wrong! Don’t do it this way, do it that way. I know, I know… but on this topic I really did not want to sugar-coat and be straight with you that most coaching that you are receiving and even that you are providing is not aligned with the best knowledge on human motivation and effectiveness. As simple as that.

So in this blog I will help you see why you should be coaching for potential and how to do it with other individuals and with your teams.

If you’d like to watch or listen, here’s the video version.

What is coaching

It might all have started with misunderstanding and even blissful ignorance on the definition of coaching. While there can be variation, serious institutions like ICF and ECC have clear and inspiring definitions. As an ICF coach, I cannot not use their definition. So, what is coaching?

“Coaching is partnering with an individual or a group in a thought-provoking and creative process, that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Right there, there is the word. Potential. Now, if it was that easy, people could just come up with a different definition for coaching and voila!, problem solved.

You probably became more familiar with definitions of coaching when you or some friend started in music or sports, even as an amateur. The coach is a professional, someone very familiar with that topic, someone who excelled at it, and they provided training, observations, and tactics for improvement to the future generations on that topic.

It is also in sports and arts where we see the impact of coaching and teaching. If you pick a famous classical musician or a marathon champion, none of them got there by themselves, even the prodigies. They needed support and nurturing (and sometimes tough love) to get to that level of performance. That is performed by coaches.

Coaching for performance is not wrong

There is nothing wrong with performance coaching. Coaching for performance, for betterment, is indeed at the heart of what coaching is. Where things can get complicated is when we coach individuals and teams into a notion of performance that stems from somewhere artificial.

If you love classical music like I do, you will know that Maxim Vengerov and Hillary Hahn are both amazing solo violinists. Both decorated and highly celebrated in their industry, they could not play more differently though, both in their sound and the physical stance. While Vengerov makes faces and moves all over the place, Hahn is very centered, neutral-faced, and occupies very little space on the stage.

What is at stake here is that it’s fantastic to be a better version of yourself and that is the notion I want you to start using with yourself and the teams you support. Not an artificial stance defined arbitrarily somewhere.

To translate that to agile teams, getting faster at planning could be a performance item for you to work with your team because in “the industry” people perceive or say that planning should be fast and efficient. What I’d love for you to do is to help them become better at planning. You can only cut so much time in whatever you do, and quite honestly, I find that certain projects just require more discussions, while others are obvious pieces of work. If planning takes 30 minutes or a full day that is not in itself a sign of performance or lack of it. And your team should be aiming at improving the quality of their time spent together, not enter a competition on how fast they can leave the room with the next Jira tickets.

An example of performance being unique for different teams despite the techniques used is this: I’ve worked with teams where everybody did pairing every single day. You could have cut the number of computers in two because they never coded alone. They worked wonderfully well together, and they had a very low number of escaped defects. I’ve worked since with teams that never did pairing and also have a similar rate of escaped defects. So, remember you can achieve similar results in different ways.

Coaching for performance is about the results, not about the how, specifically.

Coaching for compliance is ineffective

Coaching for compliance is a specific way of performance coaching. Compliance implies there is one way in which things can be done and that single and specific way defines who is performing and who is not. It boxes individuals into categories, which might make people easier to manage, but creates very little impact and results for the organization and for their employees.

Coaching for compliance is what gets teams stuck in story points and that says a team that delivers more story points is more performing. Coaching for compliance is a big misunderstanding around performance.

In this type of coaching, not only is the objective defined externally, outside of the control of the teams in a boxed way (“I will tell you what a good agile team looks like”), but also the focus is to work on the weaknesses of the individuals and teams. What they don’t do right, what they haven’t achieved.

“You are not delivering all you promised at the end of every sprint.”

“You are not good at estimating.”

“Your planning takes more than 1 hour.”

In coaching for compliance, the mindsets required for Agile get replaced by a specific recipe that can be rinsed and repeated, even if it’s not possible or if it’s sub-optimal. E.g., “you should plan regularly and in small valuable chunks” is a great mindset shift towards value and experimentation, but “you should plan every two weeks in no less than 1 hour and commit to everything I push to you” does little to help understand that mindset and achieve the results it harbours.

You have agile health checks that are deployed across the organization of thousands of people measuring “how agile is your team” and only one number means success. This zooms in on the way people work and is not very attuned to their mood and results while doing so. In a world of compliance, you are rewarded if you planned your sprint “right” and delivered all that was asked of you as if it was all certain. If you were working unhappy, under pressure, and the results were your generic product delivery that you’ve been producing for the past 10 years… you are still rewarded, you are still compliant. A complete disregard to the principles of motivated individuals and value delivery.

performance line

Coaching for compliance is what we observe in the current world of Agile Transformations, where an army of consultants come in with recipes, new roles, new meetings and names, and that becomes the new ideal way of operating. And all that you cannot yet do in that new space becomes your gap in performance.

Coaching for potential is the best

As you are following up to here, you noticed in the compliance world there is little intrinsic motivation, and even when there is some, the focus is to bridge the gap between current and ideal state by improving on your weaknesses. In compliance world, becoming better is about working on what you are not good at.

The problem with that is that research shows that people only change when they want to. The desire for change needs to be bigger than the obligation to change. Even some people who suffered heart attacks continue to eat tons of animal fat after… because they don’t have the desire for the change. There must be compelling reasons. And individuals being all unique, there must be space for personalization in roles, accountabilities. The motivation needs to be intrinsic.

In coaching for compliance all scrum masters do the same activities and operate in the same way in an organization, no matter if their teams work in marketing, software development, or customer experience. In coaching for potential, the same scrum masters help their teams bring better results over time based on where they were when they started and on their unique strengths as individuals.

Coaching for potential will not only liberate that scrum master for showing up differently for different teams, but it is also what will help those teams to make significant progress that makes their work more effective. While it’s easy to see that software development and customer experience and marketing have very different approaches to work, even if you pick two customer experience teams, they might be in different spaces as far as the results they are getting and the problems they are facing.

Tapping into people’s strengths is what allows for healthy variation. It is what says that all things considered equal (iteration length, number of members in the team, all teams in software development, etc.) the results are still going to vary because of the unique individual make up of the teams and the scrum masters (or any other leader) unique approach and skills. In coaching for potential, those results below are all acceptable. They all signal improvement. And there is only one team in less performance. In their own terms.


A final mention is that you can consider that tapping into your strengths is what can bring your performance to the level of superheroes. Inspiring, right? Who doesn’t want to become a superhero?

How, you ask? Let’s end this with a simple example.

If Anne is obsessed with Python and logic, maybe she will be the person inventing the next library that will solve for AI issues in that language. If Tyler is passionate about words, he could be the next Hemingway. If Anne and Tyler switch places they will be _at max_ moderately happy and average in their performances. They both, and their companies, and the world, are at loss from what could have been based on their strengths.

How to coach for potential

The interesting thing about coaching for performance, be it on potential or on compliance, is that the structure of coaching is similar. If you don’t pay close attention, you won’t be able to tell them apart.

They both look like this. read from Goal clockwise:

coaching for performance

So, you need to fine tune your coaching practice to adapt the beginning and the end of that pentagon.

Every coaching, be it one session or many, will start with the goal definition for the client, which can be an individual or a team. Any successful tactics involve analyzing the gap between future and current state. Then planning and executing the plan. And some sort of support is required to lead to success.

The beauty is in details. If you are already coaching in organizations start noticing things, including how you coach. Coaching for compliance looks like this:

  1. Goal: while the client can pick it, it is often predefined and based on your role or hierarchy ladder, not co-created, not invented by the client. The skillsets and specific metrics are already established.
  2. Assessment: Look into the individual or team weaknesses and correct them so that they can get closer to that goal / role.
  3. Plan: design next steps: learning, mentoring, getting specific on how to improve.
  4. Execute: do the work to get there till the next time coach and client meet.
  5. Support: usually it involves giving tools and a feedback focus, more so than a support system for the necessary new habits. Feedback and accountability on the plan and goal but not the individual is provided.

In compliance world we tell agile teams how long their meetings should last, how specifically to put work on Jira, and how scrum masters need to organize backlog refinement sessions. Whatever is missing according to that goal is what they should improve on. They will have access to 360 feedback and maybe to a coach that joins in for all scrum events for the next 6 sprints. Feedback is about how close or how far they are from the recognized performance standards.

Coaching for potential, however, looks like this:

  1. Goal: Imagine a future. What skills you want to develop as an individual or a team? What responsibilities you want to take on? Maybe you cannot develop it just by yourself, but that future is co-created at the very least.
  2. Assessment: analyze among your strengths, what to leverage, how to get to that goal using what already works. Being resourceful.
  3. Plan: design next steps: learning, mentoring, getting specific on how to improve.
  4. Execute: do the work to get there till the next time coach and client meet.
  5. Support: have an actual support system including other people, from friends to colleagues, people who the individual or teams can be accountable to, people who can talk to them and understand the transition they are making and maybe people who made those themselves. This network of support is designed so that the new mindset and habits can stick.
coaching for potential

In this scenario we ask agile teams what they would like to become, what success looks like and what opportunities do they see for delivering more value and being more effective. Based on that desired future, we help the teams to discover what they already do that works, and how could their current ways and skills can be leveraged? What strengths help support more improvement? It’s about momentum. They will have access to a coach in a model that they define as suitable and that fits their schedule.

How are you coaching?

Performance coaching is a fascinating topic and a must in the world of agile coaching. You are in the support of people transitioning roles, ways of working, and most importantly: shifting mindset.

To transform so substantially how they think people need to desire the change. Not only the why for it must be compelling, people need to be part of the change.

As you support other people in your organization to face change gracefully and even thrive in it, what are some of the things you already do and can leverage to coach more and more for potential? What skills can you double down on?

That accountability and support piece being big _I’ve been there, I know_ no one wants to necessarily walk that path alone. Partnership and support accelerate your progress! We offer workshops, one on one coaching, and our highly engaging learning programs. Check them out here. And, check out the blog for more resources around Agile, coaching and the likes. Contact me to learn more about personal growth as a competitive advantage through Agile training.