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Coaching for Project Managers
By Russell Whitworth

This week I spent some time talking to a potential client about coachin-g and project management. The discussion was split into two parts:

  1. Coaching of project managers. In other words how to set up a coaching and mentoring scheme to support the development of top PMs.
  2. Coaching for project managers. How PMs can apply coaching skills in the their day-to-day work.

This blog focusses on the the latter. The former is an even bigger topic, that I will return to on another occasion.

The ability to apply a coaching style is a management skill, not just a project management skill. Actually, it is more than that – it is a life skill… and I know I’m at risk of sounding a bit too “new age”!

Coaching is about helping an individual to unlock their potential. From that definition it should be clear that this is a valuable skill for a sports team manager, a project manager, a line manager, and indeed for a parent.

Coaching in its purest form is “non-directive”, which means that it is the person being coached who takes the decisions and owns the outcomes. The coach simply facilitates the process.

There is a difference between “coaching” and “coaching style”. Coaching is a formal arrangement where the roles are defined: the coach knows that they are being a coach, and the coachee knows that they are being coached. There are agreed boundaries to the coaching relationship.

Coaching style, on the other hand, is an approach to everyday conversations. The “coachee” is unlikely to notice that they are being coached, and even the “coach” may be acting instinctively without consciously thinking of it as coaching.

The best-know coaching model, and the one that I believe works best for project managers, is known as “GROW”, standing for Goal – Reality – Options – Will. It is a roadmap for a conversation.

  • Goal – What are we trying to achieve?
  • Reality – Where are we now?

  • Options – What are the possible approaches, and what are their relative merits?

  • Will – Having considered the options, what will we actually do, and how will we overcome any barriers?

This simple model is extremely powerful. With practice, it forms a mental checklist for many a challenging conversation. Here is an illustration:

Test Manager: I’m worried that we’re not going to get the testing done on time.

Project Manager (Goal): Remind me – what target are you shooting for?

TM: I need to get 100% of the testing complete by the end of the week if we are to make the schedule.

PM (Reality): And what is the current position?

TM: At the current rate, we might just hit the target – but if we get just one more major error then it is going to slip a day or two into next week.

PM (Options): So what do you think we could do about it?

TM: We could release the product without the testing complete – but I don’t like that as we are supposed to be quality-driven company. Or we could continue as we are, and accept the slippage. Or we could add more resource and work into the weekend – that should be possible.

PM (Will): What do you recommend?

TM: I think we should continue as we are, and if we get lucky then we’ll meet the schedule. Meanwhile I’ll get some resource lined up for weekend working, just in case.

PM: That’s great, please go ahead, and keep me informed.

Okay, so that is rather simplified, but at least it illustrates the process. Notice that the PM didn’t actually need to issue any instructions- the Test Manager came up with and committed to their own entirely satisfactory solution.

In my experience it works with team members, it works in performance reviews, it works in meetings (if ever you’re adrift in a rudderless meeting, try asking some GROW questions) and it works with children – which is a great way to practice!

The secrets of success are:

  • Trust the process. It works.
  • Practice. Get comfortable and fluent with asking the right questions.

  • Listen to the responses. Really listen.

  • Be less directive, by empowering your team members to own their decisions.

Q2 Associates Managing Director, Russell Whitworth, is an experienced project/program manager and consultant who has worked in the telecommunications industry throughout his career. His employers have included a user organization, a vendor, a management consultancy, a telecommunications consultancy, and a major telecommunications operator.

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