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Warning signs of client dependency

When we function in the role of coach, our primary goal is to bring the client to the point of self-sufficiency with respect to some aspect of their work. Whether we are engaged as a technical coach or process coach, we want the client to internalize some set of values and practices that are presently unfamiliar to them, to shift their mindset in some way, and then to carry the new approach or new skills forward independently. We want to make ourselves unnecessary.

The same can be true when we are engaged as management consultants. In that role, our function is usually to advise and consent. We will be one source of information among several, or many. We may not be privileged to know all the details of the decisions the client needs to make. We are only asked to apply our best professional judgment to the situations the client wants us to address. The advise and consent function is different from the coaching function.

In some cases, though, the client asks a management consultant to guide them through the adoption of some new method or practice. When that happens, our role shifts from advise and consent to coaching. For example, management may have determined that, say, incremental budgeting would offer business advantages for them, but they are unsure how to implement the idea. If they ask us to guide them in the implementation, our role becomes that of coach, at least for that specific objective. Under those circumstances, our goal becomes the same as that of any other sort of coach: To help our client become self-sufficient in using some “new” method or practice.

At a very general level, when we function in the coaching role (whatever the formal terms of the engagement may be) we are seeking these outcomes:

  • The client takes ownership of their own destiny, and doesn’t just follow advice by rote.
  • The client adopts a mindset of continuous improvement.
  • The client understands which activities add value and which do not, in their own context.
  • The client can identify and quantify opportunities for improvement.
  • The client can select appropriate procedures, ceremonies, or practices to effect specific improvements.
  • The client can measure the change resulting from any new procedures, ceremonies, or practices and make appropriate adjustments.
  • The client can recognize the point when the organization has advanced beyond the need for procedures, ceremonies, or practices that no longer add value.

Obviously, when a client cannot function independently, it means these outcomes have not been achieved. In my experience, there are three patterns of behavior in particular that indicate we are not fulfilling the coaching role effectively. You may have seen other patterns besides these, as well.

  1. No one will make a decision or take any action without first checking with the coach.
  2. There is no sense of urgency about making use of the coach’s time.
  3. People ignore the coach and go about business as usual.

The first of these is the most serious by far. It directly indicates that the client is not self-sufficient. In some cases, the situation is even worse; rather than vetting their ideas with the coach, the people have no ideas, and simply ask the coach what they should do. The client has not taken ownership of their own destiny; of their own improvement initiative. Every “new” idea belongs to the coach, and not to the client. People may be cooperative and willing to try the coach’s suggestions, but they do not make the new practices their own. Should the coach leave, it’s likely that the client will revert to the status quo ante. In the end, the result is the same as if the coach had never been engaged in the first place.

The appropriate corrective action usually involves changing the way the coach approaches the work. We have to encourage client personnel to make decisions without our approval. In a blog post, there is no way to explore all the possible ways we might achieve this. In general, we probably want to become (apparently) less deeply involved with the work the people are doing. We need to avoid responding as a teacher or mentor when people ask us to vet some idea they have; we need to become somewhat distant and noncommittal. In cases when people ask the coach what to do, he/she can respond by turning the question back to the team and guiding them in the process of generating ideas. Of course, we are still paying close attention; it’s just that we want to cut the umbilical cord. The people need to make their own choices and own them so that they can become independent.

The second problem usually indicates that the coach has been working with the same group of people for too long. His/her availability is taken for granted. People defer working with the coach in favor of working on tactical tasks. They assume the coach is a permanent fixture who will be available next week, next month, and next year. No reason to work with him/her today…there’s always tomorrow. After all, the coach isn’t going anywhere!

The appropriate corrective action depends on circumstances. When we are working with a larger subset of an organization than just the one work group or team, we may be able simply to shift our attention to another group. When the first group perceives that we are not always hanging around, they may become more proactive about soliciting our advice and about asking for mentoring in specific practices. They learn that they have to grab us when they can, and not just assume we’ll be there whenever they get around to it. When we don’t have other work we could do within the same organization, then the best thing might be for us to set an ending date for the engagement. When the people realize that the coach will only be available for a limited time, they usually become much more proactive about working with the coach up until the ending date. They also tend to start taking ownership of their improvement initiative, since they know they will have to carry on independently pretty soon; they won’t have unlimited help forever with no effort on their part.

The third problem may indicate that the coach has done such a good job of integrating him/herself with the group he/she is coaching that they no longer see him/her as anyone “special” who has anything useful to suggest. He/she is just another member of the group. Relationships might be quite friendly and positive, but the coaching work is ineffective. Sometimes, too, this behavior can indicate that the coach has lost the respect of the client personnel. Perhaps they have not seen (or do not know how to recognize) improvements resulting from the coach’s suggestions…or perhaps the coach just isn’t very proficient at coaching.

It’s difficult to generalize about this problem, as it has a number of possible root causes, each of which calls for a different response. If the problem is just that the coach is seen as another team member, then we can take a two-pronged approach. First, we can make ourselves less available, not unlike our response to the first two behavior patterns. In conjunction with that, and with the collaboration of stakeholders, the project manager, or whoever needs to be in on it, we can change the team’s reality in a way that takes them out of their comfort zone.

Joseph Pelrine’s “cooking model” for guiding self-organizing teams is useful here. Unfortunately, the model is not written up in a book (as far as I know), although it is quite familiar to people who participate in “agile” conferences. Christianne Philipps provides a brief description on her blog at The basic idea is that any team has an optimal cooking temperature: Too hot, and things get burned; too cool, and things stagnate. If you leave a team alone, it will cool down. Like a stove, a team has “knobs” that can be turned to adjust the heat.

So, when the team sees the coach as just another team member, they have settled into a routine and are not actively thinking about continuous improvement, we can turn a couple of “knobs” and change their world. When we simultaneously withdraw, so that we are not always present and available, they become nervous (in a good way) when they are pulled out of their comfort zone. We might “turn up the heat” by challenging them to increase their delivery commitment; by reducing the length of the development cadence or iteration; by asking them to move to a lighter-weight and more advanced form of estimation; or by changing some other variable in their world. This can provide a sort of “reset” that returns the coach to the sort of relationship with the team that enables him/her to be effective in meeting coaching goals.

Still regarding problem #3, if the root cause is that the team does not know how to measure or recognize the impact of new methods or practices, then the coach can attempt to show them how to quantify the impact. Sometimes this can be done by tracking certain metrics and showing how trends change, correlating the changes in the trends with changes in methods and practices. Sometimes, especially for ground-level technical practices, it can be done by pairing with individual team members and walking them through the impact of new practices, explicitly pointing out each event that represents an impact of the new practice.

When the root cause is simply that the coach is not effective, then the solution is to end the engagement. It may be that the coach’s personality or coaching style is not a cultural fit for the particular team. Or it may be, and I can’t avoid saying it any longer, that the coach just isn’t particularly good at coaching. It could happen.

There’s been some discussion in the community lately about whether there should be a time limit on coaching engagements. While I do think that coaching has to be temporary in order to achieve the primary goal of helping the client become self-sufficient, I don’t think there is a specific time limit that would be appropriate in all cases.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I prefer to do it: Start with a three-month engagement. That seems to be a time frame that is long enough to see some results, and short enough to avoid the three warning signs described in this post. By the end of the first three months, you and your client will be able to judge whether it makes sense to extend the engagement. However long the initial engagement turns out to be, when it is finished the client should be encouraged to “fly with their own wings” for a while.

A long-term business relationship is still possible, of course. It’s just that the coach doesn’t use the single client as a sort of “permanent” full-time job. He/she can return to each client periodically to check on things and offer advice, but these follow-up visits won’t be as long as the initial engagement. They may only last a few days.

I find this approach is better for the coach as well as better for the client. How can we keep our skills sharp and up to date if we languish in the same environment for many months, or even years?

YM, as the saying goes, MV.

4 thoughts on “Warning signs of client dependency

  1. Good advice, Dave. It’s another view of the problem I discussed in

    BTW, I’ve seen other causes for your indicators (at least for 2 &3). Just further evidence that it’s not enough to take the word of someone without learning to judge for yourself.

  2. Hi George,

    I didn’t see the additional causes on your blog. Would you mind sharing them, either here or there?


  3. I wonder how you’d differ this for an internal coach hired to help a specific team. I do notice #3 occurring a lot – where they either expect me to just do something or status quo just continues. I won’t claim to be a perfect coach, but at least in some areas change has happened and now we’re stagnating a bit.


    1. Hi Paul,

      The idea of having a full-time coach working with a single team all day, every day, for an open-ended, indefinite period of time, seems questionable to me. It’s unsurprising that you’ve seen situation #3 in this context.

      I think the general model of getting a team off to a good start and then visiting them periodically can work for an internal coach, provided the company has several teams and they don’t try to have a separate, full-time coach for each one. A couple of coaches could rotate through the teams. That way, you get the benefit of more than one perspective and more than one coaching style, but you also give each team some breathing space and an opportunity to work on their own, assimilate new ideas, practice new techniques, and observe the results.

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