Innovation Coaching

By Professor Thomas Menkhoff, Director, MSc in Innovation, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business

In the age of disruptive innovations, it becomes critical to overcome barriers towards creativity and innovation (the latter term is derived from the Latin novus which means “new” and innovatio = “something newly created”).

Innovation coaching is arguably a suitable solution for this challenge. Effective innovation coaches can help those who receive outcome-based coaching inputs to master the entire innovation value chain from strategic idea and conceptualisation to the development of innovative products, services, processes & business cases to successful market launch, commercialisation as well as sustainable value extraction. ‘Good’ coaches must not only possess the ‘right’ personality traits, values and transformational attributes such as emotional intelligence, passion, people skills, intellectual stimulation ability and so on; they should also have a track record of real innovations under their belt. Deep listening, associational thinking, demanding the very best (not mediocre work), honest (non-offensive) feedback, positive motivation, challenging assumptions and so on will help coachees to maximise their strengths and to minimise potential weaknesses so that they as individuals and the organisation as a whole do benefit. Effective coaches are able to create a climate of trust and a safe coaching environment on the basis of open communication which helps to develop a relationship-based, collaborative, high performance culture. Care, concern and mutual trust in turn enhances commitment to organisational innovation goals. Research suggests that those who have received innovation coaching view it as an effective developmental tool with good payoffs.

Who are the role models when it comes to innovation coaching? Business coaches such as Silicon Valley ‘Coach’ Bill Campbell who worked with Steve Jobs over several years (Campbell was Columbia University‘s head football coach in the 1970s before joining the business world) come to mind or design thinker David Kelley who founded product development firm IDEO (Palo Alto) which built the first mouse for Apple. Sports and educational coaches can also provide inspiration when it comes to figuring out how to leverage innovation coaching such as the visionary and process-oriented Hall of Fame coach Bob Bowman (who supported Michael Phelps over several years to improve his stellar pool performance based on planned goal setting and the visualisation of success), Harvard Business School Professor and disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christenson or ‘normal colleagues’ such as one of the writer’s own educational technology coaches who managed to turn him from a person who feared technology into a sort of technophile who is enthusiastic about new technologies.

Quality innovation coaching by experienced innovation coaches can help leaders in innovation, start-up entrepreneurs and those in charge of innovation management to excel in their jobs, be it the creation of a collaborative culture of creativity and innovation or convincing the boss to finance the set-up of a design thinking lab. With the help of regular, candid and focused conversations about the symptoms and root causes of innovation barriers such as defensive reasoning of ‘deep smarts’ in the organisation (“We have never done this before – it does not make sense!”) who are indifferent towards strategic innovation goals or ideation barriers such as concerns that ideas identified during a major idea generating exercise cannot be scaled for the real world, good innovation coaches can be instrumental in overcoming all sorts of innovation roadblocks. As far as the trainee is concerned, this requires time, openness and commitment as well as the willingness to reflect about insights and lessons learnt during regular coaching sessions and execution tactics, e.g. on the basis of actionable journalling. Coaching has become an indispensable competency for managers and entrepreneurial leaders which require relevant skills building and development efforts. Those who ignore this growing trend will face serious productivity and innovation issues in the future.

Is the use of innovation coaching more common in ‘the West’ compared to Asia? While there might be a gradual difference in the various approaches used by Asian and non-Asian innovation coaches with regard to ‘brutally honest’ coaching conversations or the encouragement of ‘wild ideas’, it could be argued that most if not all human beings enjoy receiving useful coaching feedback if it is motivational and developmental in nature. While non-Asian firms might have more formalised, team-based coaching cultures embedded into strategic talent and innovation management frameworks compared to firms in Asia, Asian coaches in business, sports, education etc. do also use a variety of very effective informal techniques which can range from (face-saving) feedback during a lengthy lunch meeting to concrete role modelling and/or positive transpersonal coaching depending upon the situation. Innovation coaching in East and West is not about past mistakes, but about creating and nurturing robust cultures of innovation and a better sustainable future.

While coaching can help individuals find opportunities to innovate, this capacity is often hampered in organisations by the lack of a structured approach towards managing their knowledge.

Read Prof Thomas Menkhoff’s article on this topic in SCMP Education Post here: