Friday, September 30, 2011

Coaching to improve performance

Atul Gawande has an excellent article in the New Yorker that examines the effectiveness of coaches in improving performance levels among professionals across sectors. He describes coaches,

"Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss — in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach — but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport... Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide."

How are coaches different from teachers?

"The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction... Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model na├»ve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own."

How do coaches achieve success in improving the effectiveness or performance of their wards?

"You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation."

Coaches also help improve learning outcomes in schools. He writes about coaches who sit and observe classroom instruction and provides information to the teachers about where they could improve or change, so as to optimize the learning outcomes in the class,

"California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests."

These specifics under observation in classroom coaching include - whether the teacher has an effective plan for instruction; how many students are engaged in the material; whether they interact respectfully; whether they engage in high-level conversations; whether they understand how they are progressing, or failing to progress.

In some sense, coaching is about feedback loops that indicate what improvements or changes are required. Even with all the modern technology, individuals cannot conveniently access information about where their professional deficiencies and failures lie. Even when they can observe, it is cognitively difficult for them to overcome all their biases and objectively accept their deficiencies and take steps to address them. It is in this context that a trained external observer, in the form of a coach, becomes valuable in providing the required feedback that can be used to improve their performance.

The challenge with coaching would be to get people who are trained to closely observe their objects in the least invasive manner, and who have a deep understanding of the processes that makes up the activity under observation. More than the content of the activity being observed, their focus should be on the subtle nuances of the many actions that are performed by their wards. Could they have done it any differently so that its impact would have been greater or less harmful? Gawande writes,

"Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn."

Gawande sees huge potential in using competent retirees in each profession as coaches to help professionals improve their efficiency and effectiveness. He however feels that professional's general reluctance to accept being coached (or observed in their act) is the biggest stumbling block to widespread use of coaches - "we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see".

How I wish there were coaches for bureaucrats!!


KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

Normally, you stay clear of management fads. Surprised this one caught your fancy!

purely in a lighter vein, this!


Urbanomics said...

thanks KP. In fact, I am trying to find out a coach myself to coach me on my work - to make conduct of meetings and inspections more effective, to make follow-up strategies more effective etc!!