“Let it grow, let it grow. Let it blossom, let it flow” Eric Clapton, 1974
While there are many models for coaching, they generally have a few things in common: active listening, open questioning and the creation of a reflective space in which to examine those assumptions and beliefs that are the foundations of courses of action. In conversations with other coaches, it’s also clear there is one problem solving model that is very widely used. This can also be used by managers looking to develop a coaching leadership style and the model is known by the acronym GROW.
GROW is a simple but effective way to direct thinking towards practical next steps and solutions and is equally as effective with straightforward tasks as with complex ones.
21st Century executive and business coaching owes a big debt to some of the innovative work done in sports coaching in the 1970s and 1980s. John Whitmore was a key figure in this. After a career in motor racing, he coached tennis players and golfers before progressing to work with businesses through his innovative firm Performance Consultants.
One of his key insights was that it was often not enough to just tell someone how to improve, but that you needed to create a way for them to come to key realisations themselves. This is the attitude that needs to be bought to bear when using GROW: the coach or manager is responsible for the structure and not the content. The content should be thought through, developed and owned by the person being coached.
Consider the times when you’ve clearly seen what a colleague or friend should do in a given situation, but that when you’ve explained your solution to them, they ignore you and carry on regardless. They might even have told you that other people have given them the same advice, and in some cases that might even make them want to dig in and double down on their determination not to follow it. What needs to happen is that they work their own way to a useful conclusion, and to do this they need both a sense of ownership and clarity of thought. This is what GROW can provide.
The stages of GROW are 1. Goals 2. Reality 3. Options & obstacles 4. Way ahead. It’s not unusual that phases 1 and 2 are swapped round, that a conversation begins with an examination of an identified current problem. This variant is known as the Skilled Helper Model and is explored by Gerard Egan in the book of the same name.
I’ll follow the more conventional sequence here, but bear in mind that when a discussion about a current problem comes up you can flip into an “RGOW” structure using the same principles.
It often surprises me that people make assumptions or take things for granted when it comes to goals and objectives. It’s easy to get caught up in activity and doing without being clear about why. In coaching terms, goals form your “premise”, the things which everything else is built up upon. Needless to say, if the premise is faulty, then everything being built in it is in danger of being mis-directed. No matter how great a plan to drive from London to Manchester is, it’s of limited use if you’re really better off going to Bristol.
Open questions that are not leading but encourage enquiry work well, for example:
What are you trying to achieve?
Why is this important?
What will getting this done allow you to do?
Ensure that clear meaning and purpose is established in their mind, that makes sense to them and can be expressed succinctly. Creating clarity is often helped by re-iteration, so repeating the same question can be a powerful way to zero in on the key elements.
The person being coached needs to create their own definition of their goal. Repeating back to them key points they’ve made can help them to refine their thinking and strip away hyperbole to get to constructive definitions.
This phase is about creating clarity and honesty about what the current status is. It might be primarily seen as a sequence of events and reactions. Encourage the coachee to put this into narrative order and summarise it so they can see the wood for the trees. Especially in a pressured environment, people can be a bit punch drunk and find individual events seem to come at them randomly – “this happened, then that happened, he said, she said” etc. Make them create a story of the current reality in terms that make sense to them and are detached from immediate explanation. Immediate explanation can often create confusion until the overall context is explained and this might need a little calm reflection.
I often find that situations that can seem overwhelmingly complex and confusing at the time, can, after a little analysis and removal of clutter, be distilled into something more straightforward, for example:
“I knew that they would struggle with this task as their key strengths are in other areas, but I just let them try and get on with it anyway.”
Once the person being coached knows 1. what they’re trying to get done and why and 2. what is actually happening currently, they can move on to consider courses of action.
Options & obstacles
At this point in the process, sometimes key blockers or obstacles are apparent. There might be an overwhelming factor that will prevent progress, whatever else changes. “We know what we need to do, we know how to do it, but until the budget is released, we can’t make a start”.
You now need to brainstorm some options of what can usefully be done next. In the above example, these might include:
What groundwork can be done prior to having the budget approved?
What can be done to influence the decision about budget? Can it be bought forward?
Are there other things that should be focussed on instead until the budget has been unblocked?
At this stage the point isn’t to find the right course of action but to come up with some viable options. Again, slowing down, re-iteration of the problem and reflection might tease out some new options that weren’t immediately apparent.
If there are no significant obstacles that need to be overcome, the process remains the same. What are the possible ways ahead? These need to be identified but not assessed. There is often a tendency to leap to judgment but this risks simply reinforcing existing orthodoxies. Coaching is generally about finding ways to do things differently rather than justifying carrying on as before.
Once you have explored and laid out all the options for how you can proceed it’s time to evaluate them and decide what is the best course of action. This will be in the light of what need to get done (Goals) and where you are now (Reality). Again for the GROW process to work, this decision needs to be owned by the person being coached. The role of the coach is not to find the solution but to implement a structure for thinking that is clear and addresses what’s important, honestly.
It’s often the case that this clarity breaks through before you get to W, but by keeping to the process this clarity should be reinforced, which will add to the confidence and determination with which it is then advocated and pursued.
One final point, occasionally there isn’t a way ahead. This is just as valid a conclusion, if it’s true, it might be necessary to go back to the beginning and determine realistic goals.
One of the strengths of GROW (or RGOW) is its simplicity. Most of the time when I use it the person I’m working with is not aware that a formal process is going on, it just seems a focussed and productive conversation. You can certainly get out a white board or stick post it notes on a wall if you want, it all comes down to preference and context. The one constant is that there are two roles with different responsibilities: the coach (structure) and the person or people being coached (content).