I have been working towards the ICF and EMCC team coaching certifications. Its a relatively new designation for the ICF and a lot of work has been going into, and is going into defining the framework for team coaching. For those of you who have an interest in learning about the Team Coaching competencies from the ICF and EMCC, check out their links shared in this sentence.

While discovering how team coaching is framed and defined by the ICF, I noticed a distinction between team building, team mentoring, team training, team coaching and team facilitation. Not to be overly critical at the rigidity of the current framing, I found myself perplexed by the framing of facilitation and team coaching. Having recently completed my final exam to qualify for the ICE-AC (Expert in Agile Coaching) and having spent years working in the clear distinctions between facilitation and coaching, I decided to write this blog to add to the ongoing conversations.

Let me first recognise the great work already done by the ICF to address this sticky issue. Secondly, let me acknowledge and celebrate with gratitude the work done by, Marsha Acker, Lyssa Adkins, Luke Lackrone, Tim Meyers, Ahmed Sidky and Michael Spayd in defining careful distinctions between Coaching, Mentoring, Facilitation and Training as the cornerstones of the Agile Coaching framework.

In this brief video, I define what Agile Coaching is based on this framework.

Let me also recognise the enlightening work by Marsha Acker on The Art and Science of Facilitation, from which I drew the most when defining my own definition of the differences between Team Facilitation and Team Coaching in my coaching model.

In this book, Marsha outlines several levels of Facilitation competency or intervention. The most advanced of which starts moving into the domain of team coaching.

In brief, to quote Marsha Acker:

With basic facilitation, the facilitator helps the group focus productively on the issue at hand (the content). The facilitator is keenly aware of the content being discussed, but they maintain their neutrality around it so that they can help the group have a meaningful conversation.

She makes a distinction between basic and developmental facilitation:

With developmental facilitation, a facilitator broadens their view to encompass the group structure and communication patterns. They focus on being able to see, name, and work with the group’s structural dynamics, adjusting the facilitation process as needed in order to help the group achieve their desired outcome more effectively.

So, What is team coaching?

Sometimes it is easier to define a concept by what it is not. Team coaching is not:

  • Giving people advice, telling the team how to do things better, or teaching them about an approach they should be taking to solve their problem
  • Working with individual strengths, values, wants, needs, skills, roles or profiles (like Enneagram, Insights etc.) and assuming that awareness of the individual parts, will improve the work of the collective (as Peter Hawkins asserts in the The Practitioner’s Handbook of Team Coaching by Clutterbuck et al.)
  • It is not ONLY facilitating conversations or exercises in the team to get to a shared understanding or outcome as Marsha Acker distinguished between the levels of facilitation above
  • It is not training, mentoring or guiding the team towards specific ways of doing.

To define Team Coaching, think systemically

When working with the concept of team coaching, we need to realise, as the ICF and EMCC competencies outline, that we are working with the single entity of the team, which is a different entity to that of the individual(s) or the sum of the individuals. There is an entity that exists between all the individuals in which, and through which, they construct shared meaning and identity as a collective. This entity is the entity of the team – and this is what team coaching focuses on.

Now, here is where we straddle the shades of grey when considering that we need to work with a collective. In my blog on team coaching goals, I defined two assumptions:

  • Since we are working with a collective, people need facilitative or collective sense-making engagements to get to shared meaning and understanding
  • That what is not yet in the domain of shared meaning and understanding remains inexplicable and unseeable and un-named, until it emerges or is revealed

To work with these two assumptions, we need to employ facilitation tools that enable collective sense-making. So, evidently, team coaching relies on facilitative competence to work effectively with these two assumptions. But, team coaching works with facilitation differently.

The differences as defined in my model for facilitation and team coaching

The stance of facilitation is different to coaching in that the facilitator designs, owns, executes and maintains the agenda, outcomes and process agreed upon for each session. The Facilitator remains neutral and ensures that the appropriate level of authority is used to reach the outcome and address what is in the room, in the session, to reach said outcome.

Each session is designed, based on a briefing meeting with a sponsor. The sponsor is responsible for bringing the purpose and outcome for the meeting, choosing how decisions will be made, and for providing input into the design as the facilitator elicits it.

The facilitator will play back the design and process, which must be approved by the sponsor. There may be several sessions between the sponsor and facilitator before consensus is reached and the session goes ahead, and each session may also have an optional debrief after the session.

The facilitator gives the feedback to the sponsor and publishes the outcomes and notes from each session to the team.

Aspect Team Coaching Facilitation
Leadership From the back (mostly) From the front (mostly)
Ownership By the team and sponsor By the facilitator
Agenda Guided by the team Driven by the facilitator
Outcomes Decided by the team and sponsor and ensured by the team Decided by the sponsor and ensured by the facilitator
Feedback Acted on by the team Given by the facilitator
Decisions Decision-making process is decided by the team Type of decisions are pre-defined and guided by the facilitator
Authority Equality between team and coach Facilitator holds functional process authority to ensure focus on agenda, outcomes and decision-making
Tools, processes and frameworks Tools, frameworks and approaches are mostly emergent based on team input and the team remains at choice Tools decided and chosen as part of design, up front and not transparent with the team, but shared with sponsor agreement
Agreement on how we work together Designed and co-created throughout the journey Agreed for each session, with majority of input from the sponsor

What does team coaching look like then?

The explanation and table above outlines what facilitation looks like, and the differences between the two parts we are working with in this blog. LEt’s now explore what team coaching actually looks like:

Also remain neutral

As in facilitation, staying out of the content the collective is working with is crucial because by getting involved with the content, the coach and facilitator steps out of neutrality and raises opinions – inadvertently expressing judgement and using the authority of their position to influence the collective unduly. This is unethical. This also means that making value judgements about what is good, bad, exciting, busy, little, a lot and so on, falls into this category. Here are examples of what is not neutral:

  • There is a lot of great ideas on the board
  • Thanks Sarah for sharing, what a useful idea!
  • This team is quiet today, there is very little engagement from you guys
  • This conflict is really not appropriate right now
  • You’re saying things about people who are not in the room and that is not okay

There are more skillful ways to deal with this, which is both in the domain of facilitation and team coaching when it comes to neutrality

  • I’m seeing some ideas on the board – what do you think about them?
  • Thanks for your perspective Sarah, I wonder what the team makes of this input.
  • I’m noticing some silence is present with us today, what is this like for you today?
  • I’m aware of a change in temperature in the conversation, how do we want to be with this here?
  • I’m aware that we are talking about someone who is not in the conversation and I’m aware that we have an agreement on this. What do you make of it?

Embody the Appropriate Authority

In the IC Agile Wheel for Agile Coaching Competency, facilitation and coaching are both in the process authority section. This makes it easy to remember that both should be staying out of the content. But what is the difference between Facilitator and Coach authority? As a Coach, you believe that all systems are perfectly capable, resourceful, whole and generative – not needing fixing or rescuing. You show up as an expert in coaching and holding the space for transitional change work.

This is also true in Agile Coaching and Team Coaching. As Team Coach, your authority lies in this belief, and the coaching relationship. The Coaching Relationship between you and the team is partly informed by a working agreement in which you define what coaching is, what team coaching is, how you show up, enforcing the role of both sponsor, team coach and team members meeting as equals and that they are the experts in their work, their challenges and solutions and as coach – you are the expert in coaching and the space in which coaching takes place.

The Authority of the Coach therefore lies in the agreement made with the sponsor and team around how they would like to be kept accountable, challenged, worked with and of course, the definition of coaching competencies and ethics. This means for example, that the coach will not give feedback about the work of the team to the sponsor, ever – but instead, ensure that the lines of communication and assumptions about feedback are clear and clarified regularly so that the sponsor and team talk directly in this regard. The team coach simply ensures that this does happen, and that there is clarity about this, for example.

In contrast, the authority of the facilitator is much more pronounced and direct.

The facilitator has the authority to suspend conversations that do not align with the outcomes; has the authority to design and choose facilitative and collective conversation processes, methods, games and techniques to enable the work towards the outcome. The facilitator also has the authority to keep participants accountable to what was committed and to give feedback about the session to participants and the meeting or workshop sponsor.

Leading from the Back

Leading from the front is where the facilitator is central to the activity and facilitating progress towards the outcomes by leading the progression of the process from one step to another – physically with a pen in hand, fingers on a laptop, or standing in front of the collective to lead the way.

Leading from the back is where the team is doing the work – standing in front of each other to lead the way, with pens in hand and fingers on laptops – they are doing the work of collective sense-making without any facilitation from the facilitator. But, the facilitator is standing on the side, or at the back, carefully paying attention, observing, listening, intuiting, feeling and reading the room. Every now and then there may be an observation, a question or some information added by them in a neutral way:

  • It seems that only three people out of the 8 have been talking for the last 15 minutes. Is this significant?
  • This conversation seems to be all in favor of one perspective. What might become possible if we explore others?
  • There seems to be opposition prevalent for the most part of the conversation. Might it be useful to explore what aspects we might agree with as well?
  • We have 35 minutes left for this session. Where do you want to focus in order to reach a meaningful outcome on this focus today?
  • In all the options on the board, it seems that we may be including conversations with everyone except the leaders. What do you make of this?
  • What is the vibe like in the room after Sipho shared what he just did?
  • What was it like to receive that email from the client?

Decision-making & other working parts

The team coach lets the team decide, period. In facilitation, the facilitator elicits important details about the context of the workshop with the sponsor, and then agrees which type of decision making is at play, and what kinds of processes will best enable the appropriate level of facilitation. As team coach, you do not decide the level of decision-making and facilitate the appropriate processes – instead you enable and empower them with the options so that they can choose and direct appropriately, while enabling reflection and feedback about this decision along the way.

Below is a view on the types of decision making I am referring to.

The other dimension to this is the working agreements the coach or facilitator has with the team. The Facilitator’s working agreement is partly informed by the agreements with the sponsor and their mandate for the workshop or meeting – and then within these paramenters, a definition of how they want to work together which is a discussion with the team for each session – where needed. Examples of this might be around Role Clarity for this session if there are people with multiple loyalties to different teams or roles in the organisation for example; as well as how the team wants the facilitator to deal with issues that divert focus from the outcome.

In team coaching, this level of directiveness, by default, is avoided. Every aspect of the team coaching relationship and way of working is discussed and this happens continually throughout the process. This draws on the idea of Contracting in Coaching. In my model for all coaching, I draw on the three pillars of contracting as defined in Transactional Analysis:

  • Process
  • Content
  • Psychological

The Process speaks to admin, timelines, outcomes, tools and techniques, feedback cycles, confidentiality, termination, extending etc.

Content speaks to the backlog of themes or topics; details of each conversation, what comes out of the use of tools and techniques.

Psychological shifts sometimes happen along the journey between team members, within team members, between the team and other entities in the organisation, between the team and the coach and so forth. When this happens, the coach needs to pause and enable the team to reflect on what this means with the means to update how we want to be together and work together based on what has changed.

So, contracting happens continually in coaching, it is not episodic.