Dr Garth Britton

Professor of Practice – Dr Garth Britton, QUT Business School & Graduate Business School

Garth’s professional experience was gained in a twenty year international career in consumer goods. He has extensive international experience, particularly in Asia, including China, and has been involved in strategy development and change management, evaluating and implementing mergers and acquisitions and building leadership capability. He has a deep and practical understanding of the challenges of managing across cultures, both for individuals and organisations, of building effective teams across cultural and geographic boundaries, and developing leaders who can operate in diverse and difficult conditions. He has extensive consulting and executive coaching experience in private and public sector organisations across Australia.

His extensive senior management experience, coupled with strong academic grounding, support his work in designing and delivering high level executive education and coaching programs for executive and senior executive staff. He has particular interests in organisational culture and change; organisational design and development; coaching approaches to leadership; co-design and social innovation; and researcher-practitioner collaboration in public management.

Looking inside the “black box”: another way to understand coaching impact

There’s something wrong with the way we measure coaching impact. It’s not just a technical problem – we can sometimes, with significant investment, show that a particular coaching assignment has positively influenced a specific cohort, or even that a “coaching culture” is associated with “desirable” outcomes (ICF/Human Capital Institute 2014). However, even though they provide just about the only “hard” evidence we have of coaching impact, such studies have significant limitations.

The most obvious is that they usually assume that we can expect “coaching”, in all its diversity, to reliably deliver similar outcomes in multiple differing contexts, treating it as a sort of “black box” that can be plugged into a generic organisation to produce “better results”, like a modification on a car engine. But the complexity of our organisations makes predicting the outcome of any particular intervention an impossibility: that additional part might lead to the fuel tank dropping out, or the steering seizing up. There is no “efficient causality” in human systems, so assuming that two factors will continue to exhibit the same correlation in every context is not only misleading, it is downright irresponsible.

Perhaps we do this because we need to sell our coaching interventions to the mechanics who are trying to soup up their cars. But, in real-world organisations, the mechanic is only one part of the puzzle – every person and group within and impinging on the operation of the vehicle the mechanic is attempting to modify has their own purposes. And if coaching is about recognising that every coachee possesses the resources they need to achieve their goals and the purpose of coaching is to enable them, then unintended consequences, both positive and negative, are virtually guaranteed. The machine metaphor of the organisation fails at the boundary of the idealised authorised system and the emergent reality of organisation as it is produced by individuals and groups with different perspectives and interests, and more or less agency.

What if we look at “impact” in a different way, and recognise that in the real-world causality is only visible in arrears; that we can only explain, not predict what takes place?

This sort of “process” (as distinct from “variance”) theory (Mohr 1982) might not produce “proof” of coaching impact in any general sense, but it would produce a multiplicity of stories of how coaching has resulted in specific outcomes, assisting both coaches and clients to understand what might be reasonably expected from coaching, and imagine how they might apply it in their messy, constrained, contested and unpredictable contexts.

This presentation explores such a possibility, building on the recent paper by O’Connor and Wright (2019) that looks inside the “black box”. It suggests we might be able to develop a limited set of generally applicable focus points for evaluation, and apply them to guide and strengthen our on-going coaching programs, not just measure their success or failure.