Professional coaching provides numerous frameworks for handing the conversations that we coaches have with our clients. There are many frameworks and techniques in the coaching space. The challenge is to select what is needed to serve the client at a particular moment.
What I noticed in my coaching journey is that the phases of the coaching process are very similar to well run meetings. A great meeting results in actions being taken that help the team moves to the next step or arrival at the outcome they desire. This is the same for coaching an individual or team – there is an outcome we are working towards that does require work to be done, some next action or step that needs to be taken.
One technique that coaches use is to help the client take a snapshot of where they are now and where they aspire to be, then work back, outlining the major steps.
Time and time again, I have seen this technique used in well-designed projects. In my experience, the best-run projects and best-designed products have a solid conceptual stage. Context and concepts matter and in my time working in the Business Analysis field, I learned a number of techniques for structuring the flow of work so that it could be captured then coded into a software application. One technique stands out very well. It can be used for building complicated system requirements, and, structuring a coaching conversation.
It starts with a business process – a series of defined activities, when complete, provides some benefit(s) to the people and/or organization involved.
In the coaching context, the International Coaching Federation defines coaching as, “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
Adept knowledge leaders have the capacity to guide their teams to break concepts into smaller components then synthesize those components into a more robust solution.
The TRAC Model
TRAC is an acronym for Triggers, Results, Activities, Cases developed by Alec Sharp. It provides a lightweight framework for describing a business process flow from start to finish.
Triggers are the necessary conditions required to start down the flow.
Results are the benefits gained for the organization and participant after the flow has completed.
Activities are the specific steps leading to the final outcome.
Cases are the alternate paths the flow may take.
There are many coaching models available, the intent of this article is to show that analysis and engineering tools are not confined to non-human systems. The structure provided by the techniques in this article can be used in coaching, with amazing success. When coaching people in STEM professions, I find there clients saying, “I’m not good with people”. However, the tools that we use in technology are all about fostering collaboration and conversation. By helping my client see their strengths through their toolkit, they can approach crucial conversations differently.
Mapping process steps are not restricted to analysts and engineers. Everyone uses process flows many times a day, from starting a car, collecting the mail, using a credit card. Most of these are second nature to us and we rarely contemplate each step as we perform the activities.
At some point in the past, we needed to learn the process. In learning, we take very deliberate steps to ensure we are on the right track. We may even have a mentor or teacher assisting us who can point out early risks and save us a few low-value learning cycles.
From a coaching perspective, the TRAC model can help shape the conversation.
Process Models and Coaching
In a coaching conversation, the coach is helping the client by raising awareness of the things we may no longer be aware of. Familiarity can lead to us running in “autopilot mode”. A coaching conversation assists by placing “pause” on this autopilot behaviour. Once paused, the coach can work with the client to better understand the thinking in the moment.
This autopilot mode is important for us. We need the ability to do some things quickly and decisively at the same quality level time and time again. I would not want to drive a car and run through a checklist every time I see a red light. All the actions needed to drive are internalized through practice so that these actions are quick responses at the moment they are needed. Daniel Kahneman discusses this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.
To design new behaviours, we may need to take apart the autopilot behaviour, piece by piece, and mindfully insert a new way of thinking into the flow. The client can choose the best way to reinforce these new behaviours into their updated autopilot system.
This is where the TRAC model helps. By stepping through the model I can ask about the results the client would like to achieve, the necessary conditions or triggers that need to be in place to start down the path, and the specific steps along the path. Some clients have multiple topics that can weave together, so we agree to focus on a specific set of those (or a “Case” in the TRAC terminology). We cannot take on all paths at one time, so I draw out of the client the priority path when there are multiple options available.
The following is a further breakdown of the steps. I tend to have clients think about their end state then work back to the present situation.
Results – Have the client reflect on the end state.
- “What does success look like?”
- “When you are done reorganizing the division, what are the key roles, responsibilities, capabilities, and/or processes that are now in place?”
- “You mentioned you want to work on the value of ___ when you have internalized that value, what will be different in your life?
Activities – Have the client talk about significant milestones or challenges that they may face on their improvement journey.
- “Working back from the main goal, what key steps would you take to arrive at the goal?”
- “What do you normally do next?” “What happens after that?”
- “What might a different next step look like?”
Triggers – Have the client reflect on the conditions for starting the journey.
- “Now that you have outlined a plan, how would this satisfy (important concern) that you identified earlier in our conversation?”
- “Are there other starting points we need to consider?”
- “Is there a way the trigger can be reinterpreted?”
Cases – Have the client prioritize important themes. Ask them to select a theme to elaborate on.
- “You have brought up many rich themes. Which one would you like to explore further?”
- “Did you notice how you stood up straighter when you started to talk about ___, can you describe what just happened? “
When coaching complex adaptive systems like a team of people in an organizational context. There are a few points to make so that the idea being proposed here does not become a recipe.
Workflows do show the flow of work from left to right. That does not mean the technique presented must follow exactly left to right or in the order of each letter in the TRAC acronym. Elements at any step may be uncovered during the exploration. Experienced coaching practitioners are aware of this and can help the client synthesize the emerging concepts.
In a systems-based approach, the end state is envisioned then the steps leading up to that vision are articulated. This can give rise to many assumptions that may need to be tested during the change process.
In a complexity-based approach, the end state cannot be conceptualized. There is an idea of a path to move forward along, however, discrete milestones along the path cannot be determined. Too much volatility and uncertainty may exist. For complex systems, identify a number of possible next steps and the criteria to measure if that next step. If the action creates information that supports the journey, then amplify with the next step. If the step was not valuable then dampen the impact of the next step, or choose a different approach entirely.
Always remember to focus the client on their key actions and how they will hold themselves accountable to the results they want to achieve. Coaching conversations are like great meetings, everyone partners to achieve the outcomes.
Andrew is an Organizational and Agile coach with over 20 years of experience working in the IT field. He holds a Certified Team Coach (Scrum Alliance), ACC (International Coach Federation), and Organizational Coach (University of British Columbia). He provides agile coaching, facilitation services and consults for learning development programs in the agile and professional coaching spaces.
Sharp, A., McDermott, P. (2008) Workflow Modeling: Tools for Process Improvement and Applications Development.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.