GROW Coaching Model: The Fascinating Backstory

One of the most popular coaching models in the world is the G.R.O.W. Model (Whitmore, 2017). GROW is one of the earliest (perhaps even the original) business coaching models.

THE INNER GAME and THE BIRTH OF MODERN COACHING

Tim Gallwey and his Inner Game method are credited for giving birth to modern-day coaching (Whitmore, 2017). Gallwey’s Inner Game approach was extremely influential to the developers of the GROW Model. In fact, according to the late Sir John Whitmore, “All the leading exponents of business coaching today graduated from this [Tim Gallwey’s Inner Game business (tennis & skiing training)] and have been profoundly influenced by the Gallwey school of coaching” (Whitmore, 2017, p. 15).

The Inner Game approach is simple (Gallwey, 2018): By quieting self-interference, we are more able to tap into our natural abilities with greater ease. It is about overcoming the self-imposed obstacles that prevent us from accessing our full potential.

Gallwey (2008) said we don’t reach peak performance because our Self 1 (the teller/the ego-mind) is constantly thinking, judging, worrying, fearing, regretting, and being distracted and this interferes with the natural capabilities of our Self 2 (the doer/the physical body, including brain, memory bank & nervous system). “It is the constant ‘thinking’ activity of Self 1, the ego-mind, which causes interference with the natural capabilities of Self 2. Harmony between the two selves exists when this mind is quiet and focused. Only then can peak performance be reached” (Gallwey, 2008, p. 14).

The Inner Game is “the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance” (Gallwey, 2008, p. xvii).

“The Inner Game approach suggests that humans can not only achieve the outcomes they commit themselves to but can do so in a way that is fulfilling to them, and learn in the process. I [Tim Gallwey] call this capacity Mobility. The coach’s role is to facilitate the mobility of the client, whether individual or in a team, by increasing awareness, choice and trust. In short, this enables the client to be more conscious in thought and action while being hampered less by unconscious habits that interfere.” (https://www.coaching-at-work.com/2010/04/26/inside-out/)

JOHN WHITMORE, THE INNER GAME, and “COACHING”

John Whitmore provided some context to his relationship with Tim Gallwey, Inner Game, and the decision to use the word “coaching” rather than “Inner Game” in their coaching:

“I trained with Tim and, under license, I started the Inner Game organization in England, which in the first instance was not a business at all, it was a ski school and a tennis school, and that was all I was interested in. Very quickly, business people who came on our ski courses recognized how valuable this could be for business . . .” (Mura, 2003, p. 108).

“[Q]uite early on we recognized that there was a problem with the name, the Inner Game, because it sounded like some sort of American cult, something limited. So we wanted to use a generic term that described it more broadly, and that’s why we chose the word ‘coaching’” (Mura, 2003, p. 108).

In fact, when Whitmore and his colleagues “introduced coaching into business four decades ago, the word [coaching] was new in that context. . .” (Whitmore, 2017, p. 15-16).

THE 3 CO-DEVELOPERS OF THE ORIGINAL GROW MODEL

Many people don’t realize that three people were involved in developing the GROW model in the mid- to late-1980s: John Whitmore, Graham Alexander, and Alan Fine (Fine, 2018).

According to the InsideOut Development [Alan Fine’s company] website (2018) and email communications between the CEO of InsideOut Development [Fine’s company] and Sir John Whitmore, Whitmore, Alexander, and Fine co-created the original G.R.O.W. Model (A. Fine, personal communication, March 26, 2018).

As Whitmore recalled, they were already using the GROW sequence, just not giving it a name: “Some early UK coaches, including me [John Whitmore], had been using the GROW chronological sequence for some time before it was given that name. A staff member at a client site where Graham Alexander and I [Whitmore] were working wanted a metaphorical word to represent that sequence. The staff member suggested ‘GROW’, and we adopted it” (Whitmore, Kauffman, David, 2013, p. 245).

In the foreword to the book, Best Practice in Performance Coaching (Wilson, 2007), Whitmore explained: “I was just the first person to publish it [the GROW Model], in my book Coaching for Performance. It [The GROW Model] originally emerged in a discussion between several coaches with whom I was working at the time, including Graham Alexander, in the McKinsey office in London . . .” (p. xi).

I asked Alan Fine via email, “Were you one of the coaches that Whitmore was talking about when he said that the GROW Model originally emerged in a discussion between himself and several coaches?”

Here is Alan Fine’s response (A. Fine, personal communication, March 26, 2018): “I would think I was I can’t imagine who else he might be referring to. I would also make a distinction between the four-step model and the labels of the steps. My memory of it is that the four-step model emerged over time during our work at McKinsey and the labels of GROW were first devised by one of McKinsey’s communication specialists.”

The Performance Consultants website, co-founded by the late Sir John Whitmore, recounted the history of the GROW Model and how McKinsey, the renowned management consultancy, played a key role in asking Whitmore and his colleagues to come up with a coaching framework — which they did (Performance Consultants, 2015):

“In 1986 the management consulting firm McKinsey became their client. Many of the programmes they ran for McKinsey included experiential coaching work on tennis courts. The coaching was so successful at improving performance and unlocking potential that McKinsey asked them to come up with an underpinning framework of coaching – a model on which to hang what was happening on the courts and elsewhere in the programmes.

“So they videoed themselves and their colleagues coaching, they invited neurolinguistic programming (NLP) experts to look at what they did, they debriefed to try to discover what was happening and whether there was a model that played out in their unconscious competence. And yes, there was – whether on the tennis court or in a business setting.

“The acronym GROW came out of the four key stages they identified: Goal, Reality, Options, Will. They bounced it and a few other ideas off an internal communications person at McKinsey who said GROW would fly well, and liked it because it was simple and because it was actions and outcome focused.”

FYI: This story also appears in the 5th edition of Whitmore’s Coaching for Performance (2017) book on pages 97-98.

VARIATIONS OF THE GROW MODEL

According to Fine, shortly after he, Whitmore, and Alexander developed the GROW Model, they all went their separate ways, each utilizing his own approach to the GROW Model. For all major iterations of the G.R.O.W. Model, the first three letters are the same: “G” is the “Goal” the individual seeks to achieve; “R” is the “Realities” a person should consider in the context of the decision process; and “O” is the “Options” open to the decision maker (Fine, 2018). Only the last letter, “W”, is interpreted differently. John Whitmore defined it as “Will” (Whitmore, 2017), Graham Alexander defined it as “Wrap-up” (Alexander & Renshaw, 2005), although he also used “Wrap-up/way forward” (Alexander, 2006), and Alan Fine defined it as “Way Forward” (Fine, 2010).

As explained on the InsideOut Development (Fine’s company) website: “The Way Forward makes the decision process something tangible and actionable, where it becomes very clear to the person making the decision what should happen next,” Fine says. “In the absence of motivating clarity,” he argues, “people simply don’t take action.”

OUT OF THE STRUGGLE CAME “GROW”

Who would have thought that the backstory of the GROW Model included McKinsey, the management consulting firm? Just as interesting was that Whitmore and his colleagues tried to fit their model into McKinsey’s 7S Framework and, initially, called their early work the “7S Coaching Model” (Whitmore, 2017, p. 97). But this proved “tortuous” (Whitmore, 2017, p. 97). “In the end, [they] came up with the acronym GROW for the four key stages [they] identified” (Whitmore, 2017, p. 97).

CONFIRMING THE 3 CO-DEVELOPERS of GROW

Alan Fine, on his website, wrote that the GROW Model “was the result of the collaborative efforts of all three individuals,” meaning Fine, Whitmore, and Alexander. After contacting Alan Fine via email, I was able to confirm this after he forwarded me email communication in 2009 between John Whitmore and the InsideOut Development CEO acknowledging that the G.R.O.W. Model was, indeed, jointly developed by John Whitmore, Graham Alexander, and Alan Fine (A. Fine, personal communication, March 26, 2018).

Whereas Alan Fine credited and mentioned both John Whitmore and Graham Alexander in his book (You Already Know How to Be Great) and on his website, neither John Whitmore nor Graham Alexander mentioned Alan Fine in any of their writings or interviews (that I could find). Whitmore and Alexander acknowledged one another as co-developers but, curiously, they never mentioned Alan Fine, even though, according to Fine, the three of them worked together for three years. As Fine explained, “The three [Whitmore, Alexander, and Fine] worked together for three years in the early 1980s before co-developing the G.R.O.W. Model.”

It was challenging to investigate the backstory of how the GROW Model came to be developed. I was very curious after reading about the history of the GROW Model on Alan Fine company’s website and learning about Fine’s claim of being one of the three co-developers. But I could not find anything from either Whitmore or Alexander to confirm this. So I reached out to Alan Fine via email and received his response about two weeks later (which included email messages from the CEO of Fine’s company to the CEO of John Whitmore’s company, and John Whitmore’s reply). In his email response (dated July 14, 2009) to Kim Capps, CEO of InsideOut Development, Sir John Whitmore wrote (A. Fine, personal communication, March 26, 2018):

“I have no disagreement with the historical circumstances as now described in the first two paragraphs [of InsideOut Development’s History and Intellectual Property Rights (Related to the G.R.O.W. Model)”*].

*Note: InsideOut had emailed a GROW Model description to Whitmore’s company which stated that “The original G.R.O.W. model was created over twenty years ago in the UK by three individuals–John Whitmore, and Graham Alexander, and Alan Fine . . . The model was the result of the collaborative efforts of all three individuals, resulting in each having joint interest in the work . . . There was an informal understanding between the three of them that each would have equal ability to work with the original model but that no single person would claim any more credit or ownership of the basic original model than the others.”

This explanation from Fine’s website sums it up well:

“The three [Whitmore, Alexander, and Fine] parted ways with an understanding between them that each would have equal ability to work with the original model, but that no one would claim any more credit or ownership of the original model than the others. Because of that understanding, the three individuals were less aggressive, individually and collectively, than they could have been in protecting their early work.”

CURIOUSLY

John Whitmore’s book, Coaching for Performance (where he outlined the GROW Model) has now been published five times [1st ed. 1992; 2nd ed. 1996; 3rd ed. 2002; 4th ed. 2009; 5th ed. 2017]. However, he never mentioned Graham Alexander or Alan Fine as co-developers of the GROW Model. On the Acknowledgement page in the first, second, and third editions of the book, Whitmore did mention them, but by name only, never crediting them as co-developers of the GROW Model. And, in the fourth and fifth editions, there is no mention whatsoever of either Graham Alexander or Alan Fine.

THE MCKINSEY COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST

The most interesting piece of information I discovered in my research on the history of the GROW Model was that although Whitmore, Alexander, and Fine had been using their four-step sequence for some time, the actual label (“GROW”) to their model came about through their work with McKinsey, and more precisely, a McKinsey communications specialist (A. Fine, personal communication, March 26, 2018; Performance Consultants, 2015; Whitmore, Kauffman, David, 2013).

“Some early UK coaches, including me [John Whitmore], had been using the GROW chronological sequence for some time before it was given that name. A staff member at a client site [McKinsey] where Graham Alexander and I [Whitmore] were working wanted a metaphorical word to represent that sequence. The staff member suggested ‘GROW’, and we adopted it” (Whitmore, Kauffman, David, 2013, p. 245).

“[T]he labels of GROW were first devised by one of McKinsey’s communication specialists” (A. Fine, personal communication, March 26, 2018).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor

References

Alexander, G. (2006). Behavioural coaching — the GROW model. In J. Passmore (Ed.), Excellence in coaching: The industry guide (2nd ed., pp. 83-93). London: Kogan Page.

Alexander, G., & Renshaw, B. (2005). SuperCoaching: The Missing Ingredient for High Performance. London, UK: Random House.

Fine, A. (2010). You Already Know How to Be Great: A Simple Way to Remove Interference and Unlock Your Greatest Potential. New York: Penguin Group.

Fine, A. (2018). IP GROW Model InsideOut Development. https://www.insideoutdev.com/about-us/ip-grow-model/

Fine, A. (2018). What is the GROW Model. InsideOut Development. https://www.insideoutdev.com/about-us/what-is-the-grow-model/

Gallwey, W. T. (2018). About Tim Gallwey. http://theinnergame.com/about-tim-gallwey/

Gallwey, W. T. (2008). The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance. New York: Random House Trade Paperback.

Mura, A. (2003). Coaching for Performance: A Conversation with Sir John Whitmore Interview Conducted by Agnes Mura. International Journal of Coaching in Organizations, 1(4), 107-116.

Performance Consultants (2015). The GROW Model. https://www.performanceconsultants.com/grow-model

Whitmore, J. (2017). Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership (5th ed.). London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Whitmore, J., Kauffman, C., & David, S. A. (2013). GROW Grows Up: From Winning the Game to Pursuing Transpersonal Goals. In S. David, D. Clutterbuck, and D. Megginson (Eds.), Beyond Goals: Effective Strategies for Coaching and Mentoring (pp. 245-260). Farnham, Surrey: Gower Publishing.

Wilson, C. (2007). Best Practice in Performance Coaching: A Handbook for Leaders, Coaches, HR Professionals and Organizations. London: Kogan Page.