Product Culture Marty Cagan

Types of Product Coaching

When I announced the experimental Coach the Coaches session in London in May, I really didn’t know what level of interest to expect, but the demand has been remarkable and very encouraging.  I was worried we wouldn’t be able to fill up the room, and now I feel bad for all the people we won’t be able to fit into the session.

But one other benefit of reaching out to the product coaching community is that several of them have reached back out to me and introduced themselves, and shared with me their career and coaching goals.  Many have asked questions about the nature of the different types of coaching I see out there, and I found myself explaining some of the same concepts multiple times, and I realized that there really isn’t a well-accepted taxonomy of the different types of product coaching.

So my goal with this article is to suggest such a taxonomy.  There’s nothing earth-shaking in here, but I do think it would help both coaches, and the companies those coaches engage with, to have a consistent way of describing the different types of help.  I’ve used these terms myself for many years, although I’ve never really explained them in my writing.

Let me say up front that these different types of coaching I’m about to describe are not mutually exclusive.  I know more than a few coaches that are very capable of coaching at multiple levels.  But I think it’s also true that even with those people, they have a strong preference for where they like to spend their time.

First I’ll describe the product-related coaching I see out there, and then the adjacent types of coaching.

Delivery Coaching

Many companies are still releasing monthly or worse.  Moving to the product model means small, frequent, reliable, uncoupled releases, and being able to collect the data to prove that you achieved the necessary outcomes.  If a company has never moved to continuous deployment, or put in place the necessary instrumentation / telemetry / monitoring tooling, or the infrastructure for running A/B tests, then a delivery coach can work with the engineers to put this foundation in place.

Discovery Coaching

The foundation of product coaching is discovery coaching.  I’ve written about this type of coaching before as it’s so important.  Just as product teams looking to improve their delivery skills will often use a delivery coach to help them improve on delivery, teams learning to do product discovery often benefit from discovery coaching.

I see more discovery coaching opportunities out there than anything else, simply because there are so many product teams out there asking for help.  Moving from a feature team to an empowered product team primarily means learning how to discover a solution worth building, and this is what product discovery is all about. 

All the successful discovery coaches I know are former product managers, product designers, or tech leads, that have learned the skills and techniques of effective product discovery, and love to share their knowledge with others.

One thing I have learned over the past few weeks is that there are a much larger number of in-house discovery coaches than I realized, and there is a real need to provide these in-house coaches the necessary tools and training.

Product Leadership Coaching

As I’ve said many times, product leadership is hard.  Especially when trying to move from a feature-team based organization to empowered product teams.   There are now big and critical topics like product vision, team topology, product strategy, team objectives, and of course developing their own staffing and coaching skills.

Many people, especially in rapidly growing companies, have had “battlefield promotions,” and now find themselves leading product, design or engineering, and they know they need help.  The client here is usually the CPO/VP Product and/or the CTO/VP Engineering.

All the successful product leadership coaches I know are former heads of product or heads of technology, who have figured out how to tackle these big topics, and want to share what they’ve learned with others.

Transformation Coaching

The third main type of coaching I see are those that help guide the senior leadership team through the necessary changes in mindset and culture needed to move from a feature-team based company to empowered product teams (aka moving from a project to product-based culture).

The client in this case is usually the CEO or GM of a large business unit.  They know they need to change product and engineering, but they know it will be even more difficult to change the way they fund (finance), the way they staff (HR), the way they market and sell (sales and marketing), and more.

What makes this type of coaching especially tough is that the vast majority of CEO’s simply won’t trust the future of their company to a product coach that has not “been there and done that” as a senior leader with other large and complex companies.  

They need someone that can hold their own with the company’s CFO, and explain to the head of sales why changes are necessary, yet can also engage directly with engineers, designers and product managers.

It’s little wonder why so few transformations succeed.  There are just very few people equipped to help.  In every successful transformation I know, there was someone that knew what was necessary, and had a trust-based relationship with the CEO.

Other Types of Coaches

In addition to the very common Agile/Delivery Coaches I already mentioned, there are also several specialty coaches including OKR Coaches, CEO Coaches, Growth and/or Retention Coaches, Marketing Coaches and Sales Coaches.

You could argue that what I’m focused on now, coaching other coaches, is another type of coaching, sort of meta-coaching, but I think it’s likely a niche.

Hopefully this taxonomy of discovery coaches, product leadership coaches and transformation coaches makes sense and is useful to both coaches, and those of you at product companies.  And just to be clear, the Coaching The Coaches session is open to all three types of product coaches.

If you know of other relevant types of coaches, please share that with me.