A Plethora of Models — Why so many and how do you choose?

Choose any training topic — leadership, coaching skills, performance management, etc., etc., and you will find any number of books, articles, training programs, and consultants with their own “unique” approach, guaranteed to be the “definitive model.”

Back in the 1980s, when I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), I was involved with the company’s engineering and manufacturing organizations around the topic of Quality.  At the time, there were three major experts identified with the quality movement, each with books, training programs, consulting engagements, and large followings across many industries.  DEC had a unique culture, where people were encouraged to experiment with different approaches and find the solution that worked for them.  In the quality arena, there were adherents to all three of these approaches, and the people who belonged to each school of thought had their own success stories and an almost xenophobic dislike for the adherents of the other approaches.  Because the culture would not allow any one person to mandate that one of the three approaches would be implemented company-wide, more time was wasted arguing over the “best” approach than in implementing any approach.

Which approach was the best?  I didn’t have the answer then, and I don’t have it now.  Each of the approaches had its adherents and its wonderful success stories.  But the one thing that the success stories from all three approaches had in common was that a company selected a single approach and implemented it across the company.  And it was the dedication to a single approach and the alignment of the entire organization to that approach that made the difference.

When I first came to the American Management Association (AMA) to lead the design and development of its programs, I did a quick analysis of all the programs in its catalog that were targeted at first-line managers.   There were more than half-a-dozen, and each of them included some instruction on coaching skills.  And each, ranging from one hour to several days of instruction on the topic, had its own model — a 3-step model, a 5-step model, a 9-step model, etc.  The models were all different, but they were really all the same.  The biggest difference in the models was how detailed each model was in its explanation.  I argued for my entire 4 years at the AMA (without much success) that we should have a single model that could be used across all programs.

In a previous job, where I was the one-person director of employee development, I got certified to teach a particular coaching skills program and taught that program to hundreds of managers across the company. Was the program I chose the “best in the field?”  I don’t know — I guess it depends of what you are looking for and what criteria you use to evaluate the many programs out there in the marketplace.  Why did I choose this particular program?  Because it was the right length for my audience, it covered the subject matter well, and it included a lot of in-class practice to help people master the skills it taught.  Could I have been as successful if I had chosen to adopt some other program?  Sure — as long as it met my evaluation criteria.  I chose this one because the training certification program for it was being given locally, was reasonably priced, and was offered when I was looking to start the program.

So, why are there so many different coaching models, so many different approaches, so many books on coaching skills, so many training programs?  The answer is pretty simple.  If I am a consultant or a trainer and I go to a potential client and say “Bob Smith has a terrific 4-step coaching model that I teach in my classes,” the client would (or should) start thinking: “If Bob Smith’s model is so great, maybe we should hire Bob Smith to come teach it to our people.”  That’s what I would do.  So, if I want to get this potential client signed up, what do I say to make my case?  “You know, Bob Smith has a very well-known and successful 4-step model for coaching skills.  But I have found that by adding two more steps to the model, I can make it even better.  Therefore, you should hire me to teach my 6-step model and your people will get the best solution in the marketplace.”  Is my 6-step model really better than Bob Smith’s 4-step model (or better than every other model out there)?  Probably not.  But only by differentiating my product from the others in the marketplace can I distinguish what I am selling.

This is not to say that there are not different approaches to teaching coaching skills and there are some real differences between these different approaches, just as there were three different approaches to implementing a quality program.  What is important is not to get overwhelmed by the plethora of models and programs being offered.  Study the field.  Look at the major approaches and select the one model that you think will work best in your culture.  Once you have selected a model, look at the alternative training programs being offered that use that model and choose one.  Don’t get overwhelmed by the plethora of choices.  Don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis” model.  If you want to be successful in introducing coaching skills (or quality or any other program) to your organization, choose an approach — one approach — and implement it across the organization so that people are getting the same training, using the same skills, using a common vocabulary — these will be major factors in your success.

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