I’ve been talking recently with a colleague about effective coaching. Like many in the lean community (including me, in my forthcoming book, Building the Fit Organization), he argues that coaching should largely consist of Socratic questioning that promotes thinking, reflection, and ultimately, self-development. In contrast to directive coaching in which the coach transfers knowledge to the learner, developmental coaching helps the learner discover the answers himself. In this developmental approach, improving a business process is less important than improving the ability of the learner to think.

These two approaches are nicely illustrated in a slide from David Verble of LEI:

Developmental coaching is powerful when you need people to grow. This kind of coaching essentially engages a person in meta-work—in thinking about how their work is done, and how to do it better. Developmental coaching results in improved outcomes over the long term—more Olympic medals, a lower rate of surgical complications, shorter time to market. Even more importantly, it improves people’s ability to improve.

But for many years, I was a high school cross-country coach, and the vast majority of my coaching followed the more traditional, directive model in which I told the runners what to do. And now, as an active member of a masters swim club, my coaches do the same—they tell me how to position my arms, hands, and body in the water in order to swim fast.

The kind of coaching that’s appropriate depends on the situation and the objective. Developmental coaching isn’t a great idea if the learner is competing—you’re not allowed to coach Roger Federer in the middle of a match, Michael Phelps is underwater and can’t hear you, and Usain Bolt is finished before you’ve cleared your throat. It’s also not a great approach if someone is learning how to operate heavy, dangerous machinery—asking an operator about the experiments he could run to improve safety is not helpful if he’s already crushed a finger. When you need results right now, you need directive coaching.

A friend of mine says, “The most powerful improvement tool we have is our employees’ brains.” That’s true. But let’s not forget the value (and role) of our own brains.