The Coaching Habit

Adam presents how lean leaders can use the seven questions from The Coaching Habit.

The Coaching Habit
Hello and welcome to Small Batches. I’m your host Adam Hawkins. In each episode, I share a small batch of software delivery education aiming to help you find flow, feedback, and learning in own daily work. Topics include DevOps, lean, continuous delivery, and conversations with industry leaders. Now, let’s begin today’s episode.
I’m exploring a new theme on Small Batches. The theme is lean leadership and the aims of management. This episode relates a lean leadership skill: coaching problem solving.
Lean leaders aim to develop the skills and capabilities of their people to continually overcome the challenges facing the organization.
Lean coaches, also referred to as mentors or sensei, help others approach the work more scientifically and systematically.
Good coaches pull others into the Goldilocks zone where the challenge is just difficult enough but is still achievable. One part of this is identifying where the coach is best suited to help.
This aspect of lean leadership has been covered extensively inin books such as The Toyota Kata, Managing to Learn, and The High-Velocity Edge. There’s also a wealth of information available outside the lean community on coaching.
One such book is The Coaching Habit. The book’s premise is simple: improve your coaching, thus your leadership skills, by developing better coaching habits.
The book is a quick read, in fact I read it one evening sitting. It was timely because I immediately edited some Slack messages based on the advice in the book. And it produced a better outcome for me, the other person, and my team. I guess that’s the power of asking better questions.
Anyways, the book’s schtick is all of us have some bad coaching habits. A common one is jumping to providing solutions to people for problems we don’t entirely understand. We do this because it feels good and we were likely rewarded for quick problem solving in the past. So, if we can identify the triggers for these bad habits, then we can replace them with better ones. Think Atomic Habits applied to coaching.
The Coaching Habit centers around seven questions as countermeasures to bad habits. The book includes exercises for identifying your own triggers and rewiring them to new habits based on these questions.
I’m not covering the exercises in this episode. Instead, I’m focusing on the questions themselves because you can immediately apply them to your daily work.
The first is the “kickstarter question”: “What’s on your mind?”.
This is the opening move. It’s opened-end enough to get the other person talking but not closed enough to eliminate possibilities.
You’ll notice a theme on all these questions: the word “you” or “your”. This focuses the questions to the other person instead of a nebulous “other”.
The second is the “A.W.E. question”: ”And what else?.
Use this question to probe deeper. Typically the first line of inquiry is just the beginning. Coaches can use this question until the other person really does run out of steam. It has a dual purpose of building empathy between the parties and allowing the coach to build a full picture of the problem at hand.
This question pairs nicely with all the other questions. You may never know when there’s something else just behind the surface.
The third is the “focus question”: ”What’s the real challenge for you here?”.
This is my favorite question. It focuses on the difficulty for the person, not some abstraction. More over, it forces the other person to articulate it. Once it has been named, then it may be addressed.
It also identifies where someone else can help. It’s better than simply asking “How can I help?” because that doesn’t identify the challenge, just offers assistance. This question is fantastic for identify opportunities for meaningful collaboration.
This question is a wonderful countermeasure to the overly assumptive or prescriptive coach. It’s also a wonderful response for people who receive lots of requests for assistance.
I recommend you try asking this question today or tomorrow. Odds are you’ll have an opportunity.
The fourth is the “foundation question”: ”What do you want?”.
This is the outcome question. What are the aims, not how they will be achieved. Just like the other questions, this one aims to articulate the vision. Once the outcomes or visions are understood, the next step is working backwards to identify the path forward.
The fifth is the “lazy question”: ”How can I help?”.
This is my second favorite of the lot purely because of the name. It’s a countermeasure to the bias for action many of us feel. We want to jump in and get our hands dirty. We want to get on the frontline. We want to be on the gemba. However we must only be at the gemba that matters and if it matters.
Asking “How can I help?”. Identifies if there is even a need for assistance, and if so where and how. Perhaps they don’t need help. Well fantastic. Then you saved yourself some wasted and likely counterproductive effort.
The sixth is the “strategic question”: ”If you’re saying yes to this, then what are you saying no to?”
This question aims to identify the trade-offs in the decisions and generate responsibility in the other person. Focusing on what one is saying no is the thing that gives the “yes” its form and boundaries.
The seventh is the “learning question”: ”What was most useful to you?”.
The last question is a wrap-up question aiming to create double-loop learning in the other person. Asking this question prompts the other person to find the value in the coaching relationship and identify where the learning happened. This is the so-called “double loop” learning moment. It also informs the coach where the value is which may useful in future sessions.
These are wonderful questions that anyone in a leadership can ask. Pair these with lean problem solving activities like the A3 process for best results.
All right, that’s all of this batch on The Coaching Habit.
If you want to develop your skills as a lean leaders then I have a bunch of resources for you.
The first is my pocket guide to Mike Rother’s book The Toyota Kata on coaching people through the target condition process.
The second is past episodes of this podcast! I’m past seventy episodes now, so there’s a growing back catalogue. There’s episodes on The Toyota Way and The High-Velocity Edge.
Last and certainly not least is the Small Batches slack app. The app posts daily snippets of software delivery education to your team’s slack. I’ve loaded the app with the best passages and tips from the Coaching Habit. There’s already over a years worth of content available. The app is currently free in beta and available to start using today.
Get your link to install the Small Batches slack app and all the other free resources at
Well I hope to have you back again for the next episode. Until then, happy shipping.

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2022 Adam Hawkins