The final note in the series brings theory and practice together into two ideas: first, in order to improve at anything, you need fast feedback loops. Second, coaches are a great way to create these feedback loops in complex environments. I believe coaching is an essential part of management and part of a manager’s job. I also suggest two approaches to getting coaching when your manager is unable to coach.

tennis serve – Photo by Moises Alex, Unsplash

Atul Gawande is a master surgeon. Specializing in endocrine surgery, he has performed thousands of operations over a long career. For years, Gawande had been steadily improving - his rates of complications were dropping steadily, and he consistently beat the averages, when compared to national data. Then he hit a wall. It seemed like he had hit peak performance, and the only place he could go from there was down.

On an out of town trip, Gawande was trying to play a game of tennis, for fun. He had been an aspiring tennis player growing up but had long since given up that dream. He couldn’t find a game, and the ball machine was reserved for members. He paid the local pro to play with him for some time. After running Gawande around, the pro couldn’t help get into coaching mode. He pointed out that Gawande could get more power into his serve by paying attention to his feet. Gawande gave it a go and within a short period, the pro had Gawande serving at least 10 mph faster than before: a new personal record.

Everyone knows that athletes have coaches. So do musicians. Why not doctors?

Gawande decided to try an experiment and got another expert doctor to coach him. The coach sat in Gawande’s surgery, took extensive notes, and gave him lots of feedback about things that he could improve. Bear in mind: this is one of the world’s foremost surgeons, an expert in their field, at their performance peak, getting feedback and improving!

– excerpts from Personal Best, Atul Gawande, New Yorker

Building Fast Feedback Loops

By this point, I have hopefully convinced you of the importance of feedback. Implementing feedback loops, however, is not easy.

Sometimes, tasks have in-built fast feedback loops. Remember Ericsson’s experiment in Deliberate Practice? If the student was able to accomplish the job, it got harder. Else it got easier.

We see this characteristic in many software problems, as well. Imagine an engineer working on making their service faster. The performance of the service either improves or doesn’t (or worse, regresses): an in-built fast feedback loop.

Some feedback loops can be very long. One can learn management by building a team, leading them into disaster, learning, starting again, creating the next team, etc. The feedback loop exists, but just takes years to run its course, and includes a large number of confounding factors.

To get good at anything, we need fast feedback loops - ideally realtime, but failing that, as close to realtime as possible.

Feedback Loops For Complex Domains

Coaches for athletics, music, and even medicine, are effective because they are taking in a vast amount of complex information, pattern matching against what they know to be optimal, and efficiently communicating the result.

This process currently requires a human. I imagine that over the next decade, we will build better AI-powered coaches (using computer vision to analyze your tennis serve), and the human coaches will move on to increasingly complex domains.

People management in any organization is a very complex domain. Everyone working in a modern company is seeking to improve. To improve, they need fast feedback.

Managers as Coaches

Managers are uniquely positioned to provide fast and accurate feedback. They observe most of what their team is doing and the team’s struggles. They may have done the same things before, or they may have done similar things and can pattern match, or they may just have a wider lens. Regardless of the reason, they can provide helpful feedback and dramatically improve their reports’ performance.

I believe that coaching is a crucial part of a manager’s job. If you’re a manager and aren’t providing great coaching to your team, you’re failing at an essential part of your job.

Coaching is not the only thing that managers do - they have to build teams, deliver outcomes, and in general, lead. Managers are human - and neglecting the important in favor of the urgent is a very human fault. To be great coaches, managers must put in time and effort toward this goal.

Other Coaches

Sometimes your manager cannot provide you all the coaching you need. They may not be great coaches or are working on their coaching skills. They may not have the time - this is a frequent occurrence in executive situations. They may not believe in its value or have the inclination. In any case, if your manager cannot provide you adequate coaching, here are some other ideas to explore.

  1. Peer coaching. Your peers have skills that you may be lacking and vice-versa. Put enough people in a group together, and there can be a mutual sharing of skills that helps the whole group improve. Running coaching circles takes time and effort: there has to be a set of people dedicated to running them, bringing people together, setting the agenda, and helping moderate the discussion. When done well, coaching circles can be effective and help form close bonds among colleagues as a side effect.
  2. Hire a coach. Many large tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, offer employees at a certain level, the ability to get external coaches. Executive coaches are expensive, and the company will likely partner with another organization or agency to pair coaches with people. One can also directly hire a life coach. Many companies will help you find the right one. However, I have no experience with any of these companies or their services, and cannot recommend one platform over another.

Important note when hiring a coach: a great coach can improve your game; a bad coach can destroy it. Be careful from who you seek counsel. Check referrals, talk to them, and do your homework.

Recap

This is the third of three notes on Feedback. This note made the case for building rapid feedback loops, getting a coach, and why managers should treat coaching as a critical part of their job.

  1. Delivering Constructive Feedback
    1. Be timely. The effectiveness of feedback decays rapidly over time.
    2. Be firm and kind. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t sugar coat, and don’t be an asshole.
    3. Show the way. Point out flaws, but illustrate solutions with examples.
  2. Deliberate Practice
    1. Have a specific goal.
    2. Focus on achieving that goal.
    3. Get rapid feedback.
    4. Persevere through the pain.
  3. Coaching 👈🏽this note.
    1. Feedback is critical.
    2. Build fast feedback loops, automated or human.
    3. Coaching is a manager’s job.

About

I’m your host, Rushabh Doshi. After spending nearly a decade managing some of the brightest engineering teams at Facebook and YouTube, I’m taking a break and doing some writing, spending time with my family and figuring out my next thing.

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You can find me on Twitter @radoshi and my writings at rushabhdoshi.com or medium.com/@radoshi.