Commitment or Compliance?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the word “compliant” – particularly in the context of bringing a team of coaches together such to establish/improve standards and uniformity. I’ll start by acknowledging that standards and uniformity help drive replication and, in turn, predictable outcomes. This type of reliability is at the crux of systems that are developed and scaled by successful companies (think Starbucks). The more a company expands, then the more those systems are relied upon. Conversely, the absence of a sturdy system will result in an exponential drop in product quality.

So then, being compliant to the system is a key factor for success, but this is where semantics makes an entrance. Compliance is a word that I used fairly liberally in the past, and even then I’m not sure it inspired the type of behavior I was looking for. Looking back at some of those managerial days, when I reminded my coaches to stay compliant to the program, there was usually an initial response back to the company line. But it seemed somewhat reluctant, and inevitably I was having the same conversation a few months later. The compliance pep talk/overtone never really proved to be an effective approach.

I believe that words have more power than most folks realize. When I put myself in a coach’s shoes, the word “compliance” has the power to change the feeling of whatever is being discussed at the time – and not in a good way. Particularly when used among educated, driven, and high energy coaches. Generally, these are people who reject the notion of conforming to a formalized standard – especially one developed by a source/person that isn’t part of the daily work environment. In this way, complying is sterile and uninspiring.

As mentioned, it’s true that the quality of a company’s product relies on a certain level of structural/programming compliance; I’m just not convinced that speaking about it in a literal sense is the best approach. Consider that a “compliant coach” is a commodity – an ordinary and replaceable cog in the machine. The compliant coach conforms to the systematic rules of the machine so that efficiency and replication are maximized while waste and disruption are minimized. So what’s wrong an efficient, reliable, and therefore, sustainable machine? Nothing…if you’re the machine. Furthermore, this Industrial Model is built on two beliefs. One is that the coaches, or cogs, are easily replaced when they aren’t interested in being cogs anymore. And the second is that the machine can perpetually thrive using only the creativity of few (cogs do as they’re told, they don’t innovate or ask hard questions). If, however, this doesn’t jive with your beliefs, then it’s time to change the way we think, talk, and act when defining coaching and leadership in business cultures.

I believe that it is the coaches within the system, the human element of the machine, that will innovate and drive continual success. In as much, they are held in the highest regard, despite the easily seen results produced by the machine. I also believe this is where the conversation of greatness starts and finishes. Likewise, an organization without a tangible strategy to honor the personal and professional development of its coaches – is living on borrowed time. Soon to be made obsolete by former cogs.

One way to look at this is creating a culture (overarching philosophy) of commitment, instead of compliance. What if each coach approached everything they did (athlete interaction, programming, equipment maintenance, etc.) with an entrepreneur mindset? What if they planned and executed their work as if they all had financial/emotion ownership of the facility? Then the conversation changes from a compliance reminder to an excellence and commitment agreement. An agreement that high level coaches can get excited about, because they are made to feel as if they are critically important to the success of their company. The easy way to do this is to respect, support, challenge, and serve as their advocate. Additionally, few things make someone feel more important to “the cause” than being genuinely and strategically developed. Consider these excerpts from a recent Harvard Business Review blog post :

Investment in professional development sends a clear message that they matter now and in the future…And don’t forget to have fun. Celebrating exceptional work, big wins, and milestones brings people together and acknowledges their value to the business…Ultimately, everything you (and your people) do should be about the business. One way to strengthen that commitment is to align an individual’s interests with those of the business.

All that said, even within a philosophy that emphasizes ownership vs. compliance, it’s probably smart to examine the tenure and evolution of each coach as an individual. It’s possible that some coaches require a higher level of actual compliance than others (although I might not call it “compliance”). Here is a breakdown of the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition and it’s application to athletic development coaching. I believe most coaches naturally develop along this progression when they work under an established system. As such, identifying which stage a coach is at can help to set expectations (know the rules before you break the rules) and speed the rate of progression. (Seth Godin definitions in red)

1. Novice

-wants to be given a manual, told what to do, with no decisions possible.

Coach one exercise at a time. Moving from one exercise/drill to another during a singular training session with no real reference or forethought about how the exercises/drills relate to each other. Scripted demonstrations and cues. They crave compliance.

2. Advanced beginner

-needs a bit of freedom, but is unable to quickly describe a hierarchy of which parts are more important than others.

Coach one workout at a time. Starts to understand the relationships between exercises/drills within a single workout. Still doesn’t grasp the full context of the global system and how the workouts are pieced together. They accept a moderate level of compliance.

3. Competent

-wants the ability to make plans, create routines and choose among activities.

Coach the system. Fully comprehends the entire system of training and the relative role of each workout, and, by extension, the role of each exercise/drill. They now “know the rules”. Only short-term response to compliance reminders.

4. Proficient

-the more freedom you offer, the more you expect, the more you’ll get.

The ability to make appropriate adjustments within the parameters of the “system”. These individuals will begin to make the system better with their strategic tinkering without the risk of disturbing the overall plan. They begin to resent compliance.

5. Expert

-writes the manual, doesn’t follow it. If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.

Remove the guard rails and let them proactively redefine the system by “breaking the rules”. They reject compliance.

A final quote that simplifies coaching development and compliance;

Master your instrument. Master the music. And then forget all that bullshit and just play.

– Charlie Parker, Jazz Musician

– Coach Hall

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