Why Coaching Matters in Problem Solving

by Jamie Flinchbaugh

There are so many leadership capabilities that can be tied to effective problem solving. So, why should the focus be on coaching? What makes coaching so important? I believe the comparison will make it clear, and here’s a hint: it is all about your purpose.

When I’m coaching a soccer game, many instances will appear where a play is in the wrong position in space. Players should be standing wide, or high, or showing for the ball, or almost anywhere except where they are standing. One option I have is telling them where they should be. That is efficient. It gets me the result I want quickly. And it signals my true purpose: in that moment, with that act, I am trying to win the match.

Another option is to tell certain players where to be, and why to be there. Now I have become a teacher. That must be far better, right? It certainly is, but the player is responding to where I want him, and why I want him there. It signals my purpose: helping that player know how I want him to play. The emphasis, however, is still on me. It is my team, my playing style, and my information that I want the player to understand.

Yet another option is for me to ask the player, “Where should you be?” Then the player makes a decision. It might be the right decision, or the wrong decision, or a good decision that is different from the one I would make. But he has made a decision. When that player comes off the field, I can help him evaluate that decision, what other options might have been, and what the consequences may have been for those decisions. I have helped him to learn how to think about the game. And in doing so, I also reveal my purpose: to make that player better and smarter beyond my direct engagement with him. My wish for him is that I will never see his best game, because he has learned how to learn and will continue to evolve as a player beyond my time with him. My perspective is that only in this instance am I truly a coach, because coaching is truly about the other person and helping him self-discover his most important lessons.

Winston Churchill said it well:

Telling is an act. Coaching is making a personal investment in that person you are coaching. It shows you are committed to his success.

The essential phrase is: “to his success.” A coach is invested in the other person’s, or team’s success. herefore, the mindset, approach, and even the tools of a coach are designed to help with self-discovery. Because what a person discovers for himself, he now owns. Lean is a journey for each individual, one heart one mind at a time. You can only achieve true change when people own their behaviors and apply their capabilities when they need them, in the way that they need them.

Returning to soccer, I remember one of my favorite all-time moments of being a coach. I was coaching a particularly young team, one that did not have a lot of experience or even knowledge of the game.

By halftime, I saw that there were many things wrong. So many that I didn’t feel I could provide a useful focused summary of how to adjust them all. So, I assembled the team in an arm-in-arm circle and asked each player to share one thing he was doing well and one thing he was not in the first half. They nailed it, down to what each player needed to change. Their ability to self-evaluate was nowhere near complete, but it was started. And that is when I knew I had truly coached the team. How will you know when you have truly been a coach?

For coaching soccer, this certainly sounds like a good approach and mindset, and surely you can’t take this exact approach in other scenarios. But why is it so important in problem solving?

First, problem solving is dynamic. There is no recipe. There might be standard tools and methods you can use, but you should not be using those in a linear fashion. You have to act, and react. You have to analyze, and use intuition. You have to go forward, and sometimes back. And unless someone more experienced is going to tell you what to do for each problem, you are going to have to not only think about the problem you are solving, but also the approach to solving it. As a coach, getting people to the depth of capability where they can own their processes and their decisions makes problem solving dynamic.

Second, problem solving requires many repetitions to master. This is why coaching problem solving is preferred to teaching problem solving. There are a lot of things that you can learn in a classroom. With a little practice built in, you can usually leave feeling fairly confident that from thereon you can tweak and adjust and improve. You are at least competent. But this is not true of problem solving.

I spent some time over the last few years coaching people while they are also attending a three-week program on lean by the True Lean organization at the University of Kentucky. This program focuses on teachings from Toyota and, while it covers a range of topics, problem solving is certainly the centerpiece. After three weeks in the classroom, including plenty of practice, I always ask students how confident they are in their new problem-solving capabilities. Almost always, they feel less competent than they did before the program, but they learned how much they did not know. They now have a foundation for their practice, but that is just a jumping off point. It takes iteration and reflection to build mastery of these skills and relying on a coach is the best method for such iteration and reflection.

A coach helps you learn based on the cadence of the problem, building upon the cadence of the classroom. As a student, the next lesson I really need to learn in problem solving might not expose itself in the next problem I engage with, or the one after that. But when that moment comes, I am much more likely to have access to a coach than to be in the classroom learning that specific point at that specific time.

Third, learning problem solving is personal. To explore this point, further contrast of coaching from teaching is helpful. Teaching is efficient and consistent. It is efficient because a teacher can line up 10, 20, or 50 people and get them through a prescribed set of content. It is consistent because it is designed and scripted and delivered in a way to produce a planned result. These are advantages that teaching has over coaching. However, teaching is based on planned needs, not the individual student’s needs.

And it is done at the prescribed location and time of the training, not the location and time of the problem solving occasion. Why is problem solving learning more personal than other topics? Because we have been doing it since we were infants. It is not like going to skydiving or scuba school for the first time, where almost everyone coming in is at the same point. Every person has differing biases, strengths, blind spots, and habits related to problem solving. Therefore, coaching is a much more effective means of helping a person get from where they are to where they need to be.

This last point is worth exploring a little deeper. In the foreword to Art Smalley’s book, Four Types of Problem Solving, John Shook writes:

"Problem solving may be the most fundamental of human activities. We breathe, we eat, we sleep. Breathing and sleeping just happen. Then we get hungry or we might get cold. Those are our first problems to solve. How to find something to eat or how to stay warm. Solving problems is how we learned to think.. To be human is, quite literally, to solve problems. How to solve problems effectively is fundamental to the reality of our daily existence.

This is why improving problem solving is so elusive. You have done it for so long, that changing it can seem as difficult as learning to write with your non-dominant hand. Have you tried it? Almost anyone who has had their hand in a cast has tried it, hated it, struggled with it, and as soon as the cast came off, switched back to the dominant hand. However, when a person loses a hand, he perseveres and learns to write with the other hand. Others learn to write with a prosthetic. In some extreme cases, an individual has learned (or more accurately, taught himself) how to write with his foot. Why do I share this example? Because I believe this is the kind of perseverance and deliberate intent needed for many of us to change how we think about problem solving. Problem solving is so embedded in the human experience, that to undo it so that we can redo it is a fairly massive undertaking. It certainly takes more than participating in a one-day workshop to change how you think about problem solving.

Do you want to improve how you solve problems? A starting point is becoming acutely aware of the magnitude of your personal gap, and realizing the intensive effort that will be required to close it. It will help if, pardon the expression, you cut off your hand. That is, create a way, whether through a coach or a system or any enforcing mechanism, to force yourself out of your old habits. Thus you will provide yourself the opportunity to replace old habits with new ones. A coach, in this context, could be more described as a sherpa, a helpful guide showing you the way on your personal journey.

Each journey is a little different and littered with wrong turns, blind alleys, and deadends. That sherpa, in the form of a coach, helps you to reshape how you look at, engage with, and solve problems.

The fourth and final reason that coaching is so important in a problem solving environment is that both parties develop strength. To be a teacher for all maturity levels and all conditions of problem solving might require a lifetime to build such strength. But if you develop an effective coaching model, you do not need to have all of the answers. In acting as a guide through the coaching process, you learn and grow from the engagement as well.

I have personally benefited from coaching more problems than I have solved, because I have gotten to see different approaches, different problems that I would not have experienced, and in different domains. These experiences have all helped shape and inform my knowledge of problem solving.

As a coach, when you immerse yourself in your coachee’s problem-solving process, you are almost entirely focused on his methodology, while the coachee's attention is split between the problem itself and the method. For this reason, the problem-solving coach can learn even more than the coachee through this engagement.

There are many elements that can enable problem solving maturity in an organization. Training makes it better. Common tools make it better. Good data makes it better. But for the reasons outlined in this chapter, I think it is impossible to build a strong problem solving organization without a focus on coaching. Coaching is ultimately the lifeblood of capable problem solvers.


Jamie Flinchbaugh is an accomplished Entrepreneur, Senior Executive, Consultant, and Board Member with 30 years of learning-oriented experience spanning a range of roles across exceptionally diverse industries and functions. Has held several leadership positions and over the last 20+ years, Jamie has helped build nearly 20 companies as a co-founder, board member, advisor, or angel investor

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