Coaching To Enable Change

As an agile and leadership coach, the most common question I get is along the lines of “How can I get somebody to do something different to what they are doing now?”. This could be getting a development team to increase their productivity or take more responsibility. It could be getting a leadership team to be more supportive or a customer or stakeholder to be more realistic in their expectations.

A big part of a ScrumMaster’s or an agile coach’s job is to enable change, at an individual level, a team level and at an organisational level and the bad news is that you cannot change people’s minds and the more you try the more unlikely you are to be successful. People value their autonomy, especially when it comes to their opinions and beliefs.

People don’t resist change; but they do resist being changed.

Change is a very widely used term and can therefore be applied to almost everything. Change is something that can either happen to me (getting older, it starts to rain, my company goes into liquidation) or it can be something that I am pro-active in determining (I ask someone out on a date, I hand in my resignation, I buy a pink shirt). From a coaching perspective, let me narrow down my definition of change as:

‘a desire or need to alter or adapt our circumstances, environment or behaviours for the betterment of our personal position’

I think that the biggest challenge is not convincing people that change is good but by helping identify the change that they want to happen, or perhaps find the synergies between what is happening to them and how it could be advantageous to them.

As soon as anyone feels that they are being changed to serve somebody else’s objectives, there will be resistance; mostly because of the autonomy factor I mentioned before. However not everything that looks like resistance is actually resistance to change.

In my experience, people make decisions to change so long as the benefits to them of the outcome or change outweigh the costs to them or concerns they have with it. I call this the “change equation”. To explain the change equation, I will borrow from my book Team Mastery: From Good to Great Agile Teamwork:

When considering taking on a challenge or embarking on a change, everyone calculates their own change equation. It is a simple equation but one that, when understood, can be consciously altered to significantly increase our chances of success. If the change equation isn’t positive (and most importantly from the perspective of that person) then it is highly likely that they will appear to resist the change.

(P x B) > C

P = Probability of change being successful

B = Benefit to the individual of the change

C = Cost to the individual of the change

Let’s say, for example, that I am considering getting fit. There are a number of costs to this, including the financial cost of joining a gym or buying equipment, the emotional cost of getting up early to exercise, and the opportunity cost of not being able to eat and drink what I want when I want to. If I can identify the costs then I may be able to proactively reduce those costs somewhat.

There will, hopefully, be benefits to me getting fit – or why would I bother? For example, I might live longer, be able to do more sport, and reduce my health insurance premium. Identifying these benefits may help me realise just how valuable this idea is to me.

Finally, we come to P. There is always a chance that whatever we attempt will not work. So even if the chances of success are 99%, simple mathematics will say that if the benefit and cost are equal then factoring the inevitable chance of failure will lead to people to say no to the change. Put another way, when the benefits (multiplied by the probability of success) do not exceed the cost, the answer is usually no.

100 * 99% < 100

There is one more problem. Most of us are loss and risk averse, so we tend to take a pass on opportunities that are only marginally likely to succeed. The endowment effect suggests that we place an unnaturally high value on anything we currently own, and our status quo is such a thing. Because of this, we require a significant return on our risk to justify taking a gamble.

How can coaching help?

The coaching relationship will focus on all three aspects of the change equation in order to maximise the chances of a successful change. As a coach I will help the change-seeker identify their desired change and help them feel or visualise the positive impacts this change might have on them (Variable B in the change equation). This will be kept as a constant reminder of what we are working towards and through coaching we can amplify and increase these benefits.

I will also help them explore the costs of the change (C). This will involve us analysing the consequences of achieving their goal and leaving their current situation behind. In most cases these costs are real and some can be easily reduced or mitigated. In other cases, however, many costs are actually assumed and because of our risk-averse nature, over-exaggerated but working with an objective coach, we can bring a lot of these costs back down to more realistic proportions.

The coaching relationship that I attempt to set up is deliberately structured to emphasise that the change-seeker is in control of where the coaching goes and this autonomy and ownership increases the probability of success (P). I, as coach, will facilitate the relationship but the agenda belongs to them, as does the responsibility for action and, as such, I often need to spend a significant amount of time with my clients to help them establish a greater internal locus of control; a major factor behind successful change.

People who have a strong external locus of control find it difficult to take control of their situation as they see life being controlled by factors outside of their sphere of influence. A typical example of someone who has a strong external locus of control would make a comment such as “success depends on being in the right place at the right time”.

My work as a coach is not necessarily to prove or disprove these beliefs (in some cases it’s impossible) but more to help the coachee question whether or not it is a helpful belief and whether an alternative belief or assumption may be more helpful i.e. that we are more in control of our lives and that what we do can have a positive impact on our situations, then they are in a much better position to achieve their goals.

This developmental need can only be sated if we take the position that we can affect our situation ourselves and, while it is important that the coach should take great care not to demean or belittle any disadvantage, discrimination or bad luck that the change-seeker may have experienced, there is often the need for the coach to help them move forward with the intention and belief that they can affect the situation ahead of them.


I believe that change is uncomfortable yet refreshing and revitalising, inevitable yet difficult; desired yet innately resisted; a fundamental need yet often simultaneously internally sabotaged by ourselves. I believe that we all have the capacity to change and that, as social animals, we are more likely to achieve change when working with people rather than on our own. And working with an objective, neutral coach whose aim is to help their coaching clients reach their goals is one of the best ways to enable change to happen.

About Geoff Watts 2 Articles
Geoff Watts is an expert leadership coach specialising in enabling change to create greater empowerment and resilience both at the individual and organisational levels. He is the author of best-selling and award-winning books including The Coach’s Casebook and is both a TEDx Speaker and international keynote speaker. If you would like to contact Geoff for some coaching you can find him at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.