Team Development – can a ‘team facilitator’ harm a team’s progress?

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


From ‘Charged Up’ to ‘Let Down’

We have often told the story of the impetus for starting Updraft.

A client presented his dilemma to Phil:

“I have a lot of great people in the team and we go away for a day or two and make some brilliant plans. We come away charged up with lots of agreed actions and then we get back to work and very little actually changes. If you can find a way to overcome that, then I’ve got lots of work for you!”

When we tell this story, we get nods of recognition. So many people have experienced this pattern – the high from excitement, agreements and alignment at the offsite, then back to work where little is followed through and nothing discernible has changed. This leads to cynicism about “team days” and reluctance to invest the time.

Have we as team facilitators contributed to this problem?

As team facilitators, we have begun to ask the question; have we contributed to this problem?

Facilitation is a concept familiar to most who have attended any type of team workshop. The job of the facilitator is to help the meeting achieve important objectives and outputs. When we wear the facilitator’s hat, we help to plan the event, develop the process for achieving the objectives, get the team to work in new and refreshing ways, help extract everyone’s contributions and push to deliver maximum outputs in a way that is efficient and ideally energising and satisfying.

Ironically, it may be that being good at team facilitation is actually a significant cause of the problem described above. Although the team may have achieved the outputs required of the day, the result is closely connected to the facilitated experience, and this doesn’t maintain its momentum once the facilitator has gone.

In essence the lone ranger rode into town, saved the population and left, the people are none the wiser for what he did. And when they face adversity again, they need the lone ranger to come back.

Is there a better way?

A coaching client of mine was reflecting to me the other day that the greatest thing about coaching is how it helps you convert something you essentially know implicitly, to clear and useful knowledge.

That describes the experience we had after being a part of IECL’s first New Zealand Team Coaching Cohort in May, and really exploring what “team coaching” means as opposed to team facilitation. The significance of this insight has grown the more we have pondered it and played with it since.

Other ‘hats’ we could wear

We have started seeing that we could approach team development quite differently by using the distinction between the roles of:

  • team facilitator

  • team trainer, and

  • team coach.

We describe each as wearing a different ‘hat’.

And being explicit has helped us shift the responsibility and accountability back to teams to drive their development and performance improvement.

Let us explain the two other hats we now consciously put on and take off in our work as team consultants:

The Team Trainer Hat

Trainer is a role more associated with leadership and other workshops than with team workshops. But usually facilitators will have a few valuable concepts and useful models or tools up their sleeve that they might introduce to up-skill the team. These are often introduced spontaneously and make a lot of sense at the time.

However, if the team experiences the new ideas, techniques and models integrated into the facilitation, rather than being identified as specific learning pieces, how they might be used going forward is not necessarily absorbed. This learning is likely to be quickly forgotten.

The Team Coach Hat

The role of a team coach is a different again. Essentially it is to help the team learn to help itself. The coach helps the team see what is needed to make progress in the future without needing ongoing support.

This means the coach will help the team determine for itself what it wants to achieve, how it will do it and even the role the team wants the coach to play. The team coach will step back and observe, re-engage occasionally with the lightest possible touch (a question or an observation) to help the team reflect on how it is operating and the options available to it.

There is a real difference in the role the coach’s ego plays between facilitating – being front and centre, cracking the whip and driving progress – and coaching – which is about being less central, and allowing the team the space for them to do the required work.

Wearing all three Hats

As we have become more aware of these three different roles, we have begun to separate them and have noted that there is usually a place for each as part of any team development engagement.

We find that during the initial stages of team development, there is a need for more team facilitation and team training but as the team progresses, we are able to transition to wear the team coach hat more of the time.

By being explicit about the hat we are wearing at any given moment and why, we find we can actively shift the emphasis and ownership back to the team as a part of the engagement. This way the engagement becomes a journey that the team is able to integrate into its day to day work and to continue when the coach is not there.

Our challenge is to facilitate less, teach and coach more. And team’s don’t always realise that this is what they most need.

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