Applying the scientific method to performance coaching

As an executive coach and management trainer, I help clients find better, more effective ways of achieving their goals. It is usually fairly clear what the solutions to their problems are, and my first instinct is to just tell them what to do, but I stop myself. Why? Because while it’s easy to give advice, and my clients are often seeking advice, however, I find that telling someone what to do is usually not the most effective approach.

There are three main reasons that giving advice doesn’t work. Firstly, people naturally resist other people's ideas. It’s human nature. Giving advice throws up a barrier, which is better to avoid. Secondly, advice robs them of the chance to learn for themselves. They become dependent on others to tell them what to do rather than developing the tools and skills to think for themselves and come up with their own solutions. Finally, outside advice sets up an out for the receiver. If something doesn’t work, they can just blame it on bad advice rather than taking responsibility for the outcome. As a result, giving advice is not an effective way to coach.

Instead, I’ve developed on a coaching model that enables them to learn through experimentation, discovery, and critical analysis. The power of this model is that they learn through action rather than through thought, and it instills a deeper level of understanding and intuition in them. While the process definitely takes longer than just telling clients what to do, their ability to apply their newfound knowledge elsewhere and the likelihood of creating a long-term solution is significantly higher.

I call my method PEAK coaching. This performance improvement model has four key steps: Plan, Experiment, Assess, and Keep. It’s based on the process improvement methodology made popular by American engineer W. Edwards Deming back in the 1950’s. The main difference between the PEAK model and most coaching frameworks is its emphasis on taking experimental actions immediately, then evaluating its outcomes before committing to long term change. At its core, it applies the scientific method by asking us to develop a hypothesis and then testing it. What makes the process effective is that it creates real-time, real-world feedback to reinforce results rather than just taking a coach’s word for it.

As a coach, I work with my clients to co-create several different possible directions. The client is ultimately in control. While I may make suggestions, it’s best when the client chooses the final plan of action. Here's how I work:

Step 1: Start with a Plan of action

Form a hypothesis, otherwise known as a plan. It should state that if a specific action is taken (or not taken), then “blank” result is expected. It should also include a proposal for a method of causation. For example, I had a client, we’ll call him Henry, who was struggling with time management. We discovered that he didn’t prioritize his work well. So we developed the following plan: at the end of every day, Henry would write down the three most important tasks that he needed to complete the following day on a yellow sticky note, and place it on his computer monitor. Then, the next day, before he could answer any emails, or take any new meetings, or even have a conversation, he would accomplish those three tasks. Note how easy this plan was to implement. It required no new software to install, no boards to create, no systems to develop and learn ─ just sticky notes and a simple set of rules.

Step 2: Conduct the Experiment

The next phase is to implement the experiment and collect data for a limited period of time. For Henry, that meant two weeks of doing the sticky note experiment. I had him keep an online journal (something I do with most of my coaching clients) to record his results and thoughts between sessions. Henry journaled about his to-do lists, which tasks he actually completed before working on anything else, how productive he felt, how hard  it was to deter from other activities, and the feedback he received from coworkers.

Step 3: Assess the outcomes

After two weeks worth of Post-Its, we reviewed the results. We had collected hard data: the number of days he prepared his sticky notes at night, the number of days he made them in the morning, and how many tasks he completed. We discussed his feelings toward the experiment and the feedback from his coworkers. One coworker had thanked him for completing a task way ahead of schedule. Another had commented that they were happily surprised when Henry turned down an unimportant task because he had a full list that day.

Step 4: Decide what to Keep

The final goal is to decide what actions make a measurable difference and what is feasible to keep doing in the long term. Our assessment brought to light a number of solutions that Henry should implement to prioritize his work:

  • Making a list of the three most important things he needed to accomplish the following day proved to be helpful and productive. However, it was hard for him to remember to make the list at night. Instead, Henry found that it was easier to do it in the morning. In fact, he was able to think of a better list in the morning while his mind was fresh, rather than the night before when he was tired from the day.

  • He struggled to ignore his emails until after all three tasks were done. We came up with a revised strategy to make the list, then check emails for 15 minutes. If need be, he could reply to emails to say that he would reply to them in detail later, or if something urgent came up in an email, he could include it in his to-do list (and take something else off).

  • Henry opted to write his top three daily tasks in a notebook instead of on sticky notes. This allowed him to add new tasks throughout his day, and record what he completed. He could then review his productivity at the end of each week.

In summary, once the new process was tested and proved and the final process clearly defined, we worked on honing the implementation and focusing on long-term adoption. We could do this confidently because we had tested the process and saw the results. And that’s the key to the PEAK model; checking ideas through experimentation before trying to make big changes and build long-term habits.

Before trying to implement your next change, try experimenting with the PEAK model to see how you can improve and optimize it before investing your time and energy in long-term adoption.

* * * * *

Bruce Eckfeldt is highly-focused, results-based organizational development consultant and performance coach.  Previously an entrepreneur and a former Inc. 500 CEO he now advises executives and teams in startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. He is a long-time member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and a mentor for the EO Accelerators, ERA, and SBS programs. You can reach him at or visit his website at