4 Digital Coaching Lessons from a DIY Dad

My dad is something of a DIY hero. Woodwork, metalwork, plumbing, electrical, bricklaying – he does it all. Some of my earliest memories are of me in a garage full of tools and miscellaneous flotsam, ‘helping’ him work. When I was old enough, maybe eight or nine years old, he bought me a miniature set of metal tools, which included a child-sized saw, hammer, and pair of screwdrivers. This meant that I could really get involved. I had graduated from being a passive observer to a mini apprentice.

Furnished with tools, a ready supply of offcut wood and a safe(ish) space, I plunged headlong into experimentation. The volume of skew grooves, nails, and screws that followed was staggering! And let’s not forget the occasional hammered thumb. But, eventually, with the help of appropriately placed demonstrations, tips, stories, and questions, I got the hang of it.

One of the proudest moments for me, and for my dad, was when I’d successfully completed my first proper project. It was a small wooden table for my cat, Tammy, to eat off. Although the end product was far from perfect, what made the achievement so significant for me was that I did it myself, and that I had an opportunity to experience new and interesting ways to adjust and combine the component skills I’d developed. I had owned the project, and I was fully invested in seeing it succeed.

Tammy received her food on that table for the rest of her life.

Not all projects with my dad were like that, though. Sometimes he’d try to involve me in a project that I didn’t understand or personally care about. Sometimes, because of the complexity of the work or the risks involved, I was only allowed to stand around and hand him things when he asked for it. Boring! On these occasions, I’d take any opportunity to get away to watch TV or to play computer games instead.

To a large extent, what I’ve shared above represents a mentor-apprentice relationship. There are key lessons buried within this type of relationship that are extremely valuable for developing effective digital coaching experiences. Let’s do a bit of excavation to see what those key lessons are.

1. Supply the tools but don’t prescribe their use

Most tools can be used in multiple ways and in multiple contexts. Had I been told that a screwdriver is only for turning in screws, I might not have realized that they could also be used to punch holes, scrape off paint, prize open cans, and so much more.

In automated coaching, the tools we supply are not screwdrivers and hammers, but rather concepts and mental models that offer new perspectives and ways of thinking. The primary aim is not to convey information, but rather to deepen insight and to enhance the effectiveness and flexibly of thought. That’s why when we supply people with the tools to think, we must also allow them the freedom to experiment with a variety of ways of applying them. This approach empowers people to navigate a wider array of situations, including ones they’ve never encountered before.

2. Create a safe space for mistakes

Some of the most powerful learning moments occur immediately after a mistake has been made. In the midst of a negative consequence, we are more likely to experience the divine doubt that makes us hungry for and receptive to alternative perspectives. Mistakes are essential.

However, we can’t always afford to make mistakes out in the world, especially when the cost to our work, relationships or safety is too high. That’s why, when developing coaching experiences, we need to create a space where, as in my dad’s garage, mistakes are contained (not discouraged), and where appropriate questions and nudges can be supplied at strategic moments to help distill valuable insights.

3. Make it personal and relevant

What made the Tammy table project such a significant learning experience for me (one that I remember more than 20 years later) was that it was a project that mattered to me. I focused my attention and endured frustration and struggle because I derived a sense of joy from imagining my cat using the table. It was personal and relevant to my unique context, and I felt a deep sense of ownership.

Similarly, in order for digital coaching experiences to be engaging and meaningful, to evoke lasting insights and activate behavior change, they need to be relevant to the learner’s needs, connect to the learner’s unique context, and encourage the learner to take charge of achieving the outcomes.


4. Stretch but don’t exceed

When developing automated coaching experiences, it’s important to consider the limits of our learners. If we facilitate experiences that stretch them and help them grow, they are likely to be buoyed by feelings of accomplishment and pride. However, if we provide them with experiences that too far exceed their current limits, they are likely to become overly frustrated, disheartened or bored – and perhaps, like my younger self, wander off to watch TV or play computer games.

Embedded in the mentor-apprentice relationship are lessons that we can use to produce superior coaching experiences – experiences that do not only facilitate new modes of thought and behavior, but also encourage passion, creativity, commitment, adaptability, and resilience.

In what ways can you incorporate these lessons from a mentor-apprentice relationship into your digital coaching solution?