I have been introducing Wu Wei Coaching in several blog posts. The previous examples have had more of an organizational development focus. I though it would be fun to introduce a more common example that most of the coaches encounter in their work. Although Wu Wei Coaching has quite a wide theoretical basis, it doesn’t mean it has to be complex activity in itself. Not at all. In fact it is usually quite mundane activity, involving normal conversations and meetings between people. It is the inner practice where the difference is, if somewhere. I will present here a narrative of a team coaching, which shows what kind of work I usually do.

Case: Team planning meetings

I was asked by a management team member to start coaching activities with a SW team that seemed to have problems with their work motivation and setup. The organization had somewhat unclear roles & responsibilities and this seemed to cause problems with many teams. This team was one of them. The team had been previously working as a Scrum team, but because of some changes in the leadership (which initiated complex interactions and interpretations that lead to results that weren’t the aim of any of the participants), the Scrum approach was rejected and the team was appointed a technical leader instead. This person was located in another country and the cooperation didn’t work well. The team was lost.

So, I approached some of the team members, asking if there were some ways I could help them. I was asked to participate a planning workshop they had organized and to give some feedback on what I saw happening there.

First planning meeting

The planning meeting setup was quite regular one I was accustomed to see. The team members were present, technical lead was participating via conference call and the product owner was using data projector to show the backlog. Instead of actual planning, the focus seemed to be more on reporting the statuses of the individual requirements. Most interesting discussions were done before and after the official meeting time. In those discussions the team members showed informally and emotionally their opinions on what wasn’t working – mostly some cooperation issues between the people & roles. I didn’t talk much during the official meeting, only things I raised was my own opinion about the real meaning/purpose of planning in the organizations.

The main conclusion of the meeting was a need to have a proper planning meeting, as this clearly wasn’t one. The next meeting was called to next week when the technical lead was also locally present.

After this first meeting I again approached some of the team members and suggested that it would be good to plan a little bit how to do the actual planning meeting next week. That way we could make sure it was done more skillfully than the previous one. So, another meeting was organized later the same week.

Second team meeting

In this meeting I had another coach, a colleague of mine participating the meeting also. Before the meeting we had a conversation about what our strategy for the meeting was going to be. We agreed that I would first present my observations from the first planning meeting and then we’d move on to the actual agenda. We decided not to do any detailed plans of how we would like to see the planning happening. Instead we’d just initiate the discussion and adapt to that.

All the invited participants arrived to the place. Before the official meeting started, one team member made a statement that he would leave immediately if the conversation wouldn’t seem to be beneficial for him.

I started the meeting by presenting the observations from the first planning meeting, followed by some suggestions to improve some things. The first comment from a team member was that they should define the “team”. What is it and who are part of it? The discussion then continued to what they would expect from the team leader role. Quite fast the discussion then turned to the planning. One of the team members presented her view on how they could do the planning. The approach was very similar to that of the Scrum method. All the people agreed that it was a good idea and should be tried. We suggested that she should facilitate the event as she already had given a thought about it.

There were lots of discussions between the product owner and some of the team members about the overall planning practices and they agreed to have a backlog grooming meeting and regular plannings on Mondays. Nobody left the meeting, in fact most people stayed longer than the official meeting time.

After the meeting we had a discussion with the other coach about what we saw happening in that meeting. We saw several switches of power relations and saw some of the dynamics on who were the unofficial leaders of the team. What we did in practice, was to proceed some observations to initiate the discussion and then we encouraged the “natural leader” to proceed with her plan. It suited the other team members also.

Reflections on the case

I won’t spend time describing the second planning meeting. It had some interesting qualities in itself, but the coaching approach wasn’t very different from what I already described. Instead I will proceed to share my thinking of what kind of Wu Wei Coaching qualities this case had:

First of all, the whole approach was heavily based on the dialogue. There weren’t any tools or methods that were used. I didn’t have any predefined goals in my mind and neither did my colleague. For us it wasn’t of importance what kind of planning methods the team would use. What we saw to be important was that the team members, and other stakeholders, were discussing about what it is that they are doing and what they would like to be doing.

We also used a really reflective approach to the coaching. Before the first planning meeting I talked with one of the team members about their situation and where I could be of help. With the invitation to participate the meeting we were creating a context for the meeting. It wasn’t just a planning meeting, but a special meeting where there was a coach present as an audience and as a participant. Even though my participation was minimal, people were aware of my presence.

We also had reflective discussion with my colleague upon the case before and after the meetings took place. Even though we didn’t make lots of plans for the actual meetings, we created some kind of narratives about what was happening in the team. Those narratives provided us some focus points and vocabulary to our inner dialogue of what was happening in the meeting.

We were also discussing about the power relations we saw taking place in the meetings. In fact, the biggest change we saw happening in the dynamics of these meetings was the change in the power relations. It was also closely related to the changes in identities. We made some of the emerging leadership gestures more transparent for the whole team, which empowered people to question the “power rituals” used in the previous meetings.

Summary of the “Wu Wei Qualities” of the case:

  • Assume the client to be the expert on his own work and situation
  • Creativity and improvisation are more effective than planning and using methodologies
  • Don’t go to the diagnosis, leave the case open as long as possible – and even longer
  • Multiple voices: Try to hold several different viewpoints visible all the time
  • If the solution/problem becomes fixed change the rules of the game so that it is under negotiation again
  • Put focus on the language and conversations, not on the abstract tools and processes
  • Assume that there are no tools and processes, only people that are trying to make sense of the big picture/cooperation by using concepts such as tools and processes
  • Keep the focus on this moment: How to affect things here and now, with these people in hand?
  • Empower the client, enforce his agency (step aside with your fancy thoughts and “killer interventions”)
  • See the organization and the roles as dynamic processes, not static entities and structures
  • Use reflecting teams to create polyphony

I hope that this case gives an example of how simplistic the Wu Wei Coaching can be in practice. In fact, it should be. The goal is not to establish the Coach to be the Super Hero that saves the client, but instead empower the client to be the Master of his own life and situation. Still, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily easy to do the coaching. The inner practice of Wu Wei Coaching can be really demanding even though it isn’t visible to outside at all.

As always, comments are very welcome!