Team Coaching Discovery Success in Six Steps

By Phillip Sandahl


A successful team coaching project starts with a clear understanding of the need, the fit an agreement on intended outcomes.

Both the team coach and the team sponsor know: “where we are; where we’re headed; and how we’ll get there”.

We use the placeholder, “team sponsor” for the organization’s role because that initiative may have come from many places.

It may have originated with HR Business Partners, OD or Learning & Development professionals.

So for ease of reference using the term “team sponsor” simplifies the discussion.

Our focus here is on finding the intersection of need and fit for a successful team coaching project.

For a broader discussion on the role team coaching occupies in team development see our post on the business case for team coaching.

Team Coaching Discovery & Project Definition

Team Coaching Discovery Project Definition

Note that the “you” in the title, “What you need to know before you start”, refers to both the team coach and the team sponsor.

The team coaching discovery process is important for both. It starts with an exploration between the coach and the team sponsor.

They take a look at the current team situation and discuss how a team coaching session might be beneficial.

Getting aligned before a team coaching engagement starts is critical to the success of the work with teams.

The start, after all, is where expectations get set for the coach, the team leader and, by extension, the team and the organization.

Step #1: Identify the Need

Identify Team Coaching Need

We start with a focus on the team sponsor’s perspective on the current team situation.

The two core questions are simple and direct: “Why team coaching?” and “Why now?”

The “why” of team coaching can cover a lot of ground upon initial exploration.

The team leader may have a very specific reason or a general sense that things are not going well.

There could also be important changes in the team or the organization as a whole:

  • A merger creating the need to integrate two teams into one.
  • A new team leader having difficulty adjusting to a veteran team.
  • A team that is not hitting its numbers.
  • A team with an intractable conflict between some team members.

For the team coach, it’s important to identify the problems that motivate the desire for change.

These are symptoms of the problem, but from a systems point of view, our goal is not to uncover the root cause of the issue.

That may surface in the course of working with the team. Our goal is to get a clearer understanding of how the team works.

At this point, we’re looking to understand the underlying dynamics creating the issue.

That understanding will take more than a one-hour conversation with the team sponsor.

It’s one of the outcomes of a team coaching process and requires the team’s participation, but that is the lens.

And the reason for that perspective is to support the inquiry: “Is this situation a good fit for team coaching?”

“Why now?” is an important question that will help the team coach understand the level of urgency behind this exploration.

It’s also a question that can fan an ember of motivation into a flame of urgency.

A strong sense of urgency, after all, is one of the key motivators for team development and a momentum driver.

One team coaching discovery question would be, “Where is the pressure coming from for this initiative?”

And along those lines, is it the team leader’s agenda, or an organizational directive that’s driving it?

And to the extent the team coach can rely on second-hand reporting, how does the team feel about this current situation?

Another question that gets to the heart of willingness to engage in team coaching and igniting a sense of urgency is this:

“What are the consequences if nothing changes?”

Team coaching is a change process. To be successful it requires commitment. Currently, the team is tolerating or working around a challenging situation.

Unless there is a commitment there will only be resistance, some of that resistance will be active and some will be passive.

The sponsor’s evaluation and insight are essential starting points that identify the key issues and the impact.

Discovery is about finding the pain. Educating the client is about showing how team coaching could address that pain.

Item #2: Educate The Sponsor In The Process

Educate Sponsor About Team Coaching Process

Team coaching is still a new modality in the team development toolkit.

Most organizations are familiar with one-on-one executive or leadership coaching.

Applying business coaching within the context of a team is likely a new concept.

The goal is to describe how the process works and clarify how team coaching is different from more familiar options.

It’s also to set expectations for what team coaching can deliver and what it can’t.

The most obvious difference between a coaching process and a team building event or training session is in the time frame.

If the goal is an effective and sustainable change in team results, it requires new behavior, integrated into the life of the team.

A one-time intervention like a team building session or workshop can have a powerful temporary impact.

But unless the lesson is being integrated into how the team interacts, it will fade as team members revert to what is familiar and comfortable.

Even if what is familiar to the team is ineffective it’s what they know best at the moment. Homeostasis is a powerful force.

What makes team coaching effective is the support, empowerment, action, learning, and accountability.

As coaches, we understand that sustainable behavioral change takes time, attention and practice.

Item #3: Check The Fit For Team Coaching

Identify Team Coaching Project Fit

In coaching we often start this question about fit by looking for three conditions:

  • Willingness to change.
  • Capacity to change.
  • Commitment to change.

These conditions underpin any coaching form, whether it be individual coaching or coaching a business team.

The difference between teams versus individuals is the level of these three conditions at the start of the process.

Especially during the team coaching discovery stage, the team coach may be relying only on how the sponsor shows up.

The team is a mix of anticipation, resistance, curiosity, passive compliance or indifference.

With teams, these three qualities grow over time by creating success steps along the way and building trust and relationship.

A thorough discovery process will provide an opportunity to describe realistic expectations.

These expectations will originate from the experience of other team coaching examples.

A concept that will be important to communicate because it addresses expectations is this:

The goal of team coaching is not solving problems. Problems will become resolved in an effective team coaching process.

The goal is creating improved dynamics so that the presenting and future issues will be better addressed by the team.

The goal is a more resourceful and effective team that will be able to handle the new challenges that remain ahead.

One simple exercise is for the team coach and team sponsor to share their assumptions about the process and outcome.

To put those assumptions on the table where they are visible to explore.

Addressing them early, before the work starts, provides an opportunity to ensure that the coach and the sponsor agree.

Item #4: Clarify The Roles

Roles, responsibilities, and relationships form the infrastructure for team coaching.

Because team coaching may be a new undertaking for team sponsors, clarity about those factors is especially important.

Without team coaching experience some sponsors may only think of sports coaching.

The Team Coach

Many a team sponsor will be familiar with individual coaching and team coaching does share similar principles.

But the form is much different when we compare a private, one-on-one dialogue to a public conversation between team members.

The agenda, action, accountability, and results all belong to the team. The team coaches role is to be a learning and process facilitator.

This is different than a sports coach who’s managing a team and has a teaching directive.

It’s also a different role than a consultant: a relationship that is likely more familiar to the team.

Unlike a consultant, the team coach is not analyzing team performance for the sake of giving advice or an action plan.

The impact of coaching in this context is that the team take ownership of their process and their results.

It’s useful for the sponsor to understand that the team coach’s attention will be on the team dynamics.

How the team interacts with one another; this is where efficiency and strength originate.

It’s important to note that coaching is a change process and systems, like teams, are generally resistant to change.

Team resistance is normal. And there will be times when the coach, as a change agent, will not be very popular.

An important role for the team coach is to create and help maintain a safe environment.

In safety, team members can engage in meaningful, sometimes risky or challenging conversation.

Change of any kind is uncomfortable but when a change takes place within a safe container it’s often possible to press on.

The Team

The primary role of the team is to show up and engage in the team conversation.

In team coaching, it is the team and not the team sponsor who is the coachee.

The team coach is advocate and champion for the team as a whole, not any one single person on the team, even the team leader.

During the time frame of a team coaching program team members may come and go.

A team leader may even change, but the commitment on the coach’s part remains the effective development of the team.

The Team Leader

There is a balancing act in the relationship of the team, team coach, and team leader. On one hand, the team leader is an obvious and member of the system that is the team.

It needs to be clear that the agenda for change belongs to the team and isn’t a command from the team leader.

There’s also authority and rank that is inescapable especially in open team conversations.

Sensitivity to this balance is everyone’s responsibility: the team leader, the coach and the team members.

The Organization

The organization has a stake in the outcome of this process and there is a significant investment in the team.

The organization assumes that there will be a return on its investment.

It expects that a successful team coaching project will affect other stakeholder relationships.

A critical element in the relationship to the organization is in where the responsibility lies for that relationship.

Coaching, whether it be an individual or a team, will always be more effective when protected under the net of confidentiality.

It’s our belief that any reporting to those in the organization not on the team should be first approved by the team.

Safety for courageous conversation is essential for the process to work at its best.

If team members become concerned with repercussions they’ll hold back.

And when team members hold back the benefits of the team coaching will become minimized.

Item #5: Confirm Logistics

The heart of the business team coaching discovery process is finding that intersection of need and opportunity.

Within this context, team coaching is the process we use to deliver the desired results.

Once it’s clear there’s a good fit, a sense of urgency to get underway, and a commitment to the process, the next step is quite practical.

It involves confirming logistics of budget and schedule. This leads to the last item on the checklist.

Item #6: Prepare a Proposal or Memo of Understanding

Prepare Proposal Memo of Understanding

For an external coach this step is a formal proposal or in some cases might be a simpler form, a Statement of Scope.

The SOW provides an itemized description of a process that the team coach and team sponsor have discussed and agree with.

For an internal team coach, there will likely be a Memo of Understanding that clarifies the details.

This indicates that there is a clear specific agreement on the proposed team coaching project. In either case, this final step will solidify everyone’s understanding of the project. 


Assuming one has followed the above discovery steps in a thorough manner it should be quite clear what the current situation is and how best to move forward.

In some cases, an additional discussion may need to take place, but if you’ve followed the above steps there should be little doubt about how to approach the project.

Should the team sponsor wish to move forward with the engagement you’ll find yourself much better prepared to proceed having conducted a thorough discovery process.

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