Why You Need An Innovation Coach

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Today, organizations routinely ask their people for innovation, and then prevent it from happening.

Costa Michailidis, Co-Founder of Innovation Bound Tweet

You’ve gone through training or read about things like design thinking and lean startup.  Now you’re ready to innovate with your team.  But somehow the project doesn’t go as smoothly as the exercises and cases studies you read through.  The people you need to collaborate with have to be convinced or the customers you need to talk to aren’t as readily accessible or you need to procure software to create a prototype and that will take a long time.  Suddenly it looks a lot tougher than you expected.  You conclude that perhaps the things you learned won’t work with your organization or in your industry.  Innovation sounded fun but you are not in the right place to do it.

I have worked with many teams who have come up against this barrier.  How organizations innovate should be as unique and game changing as the innovations they create.   This doesn’t mean that the innovation methods you learned don’t apply; it means you need to be intentional as you apply them, thinking about how they will work in your organization and iterating on the design of your organization’s unique innovation blueprint.

Potholes and dead ends in the innovation journey

I recently sat down with a team at the start of their innovation journey.  They were participating in an innovation accelerator in their organization and were flush with excitement having just completed a 2-day bootcamp.  “Tell me about your project,” I said, “What does success look like in 3 months when the program ends?”  They launched into telling me about the problem (a good start) but then said that success was convincing people to use their current solution to the problem.  Hmmm, that sounds like a job for a sales person, not an innovation team.

To be fair, this wasn’t entirely their fault.  Their application to the innovation accelerator program focused on the solution they already had rather than the problem that needed to be solved.  After all, having a good solution idea is what enabled them to win a ticket into the program – those that just presented a problem were weeded out.  And since management had to sign off on their participation in the program, managers also expected that the outcome would be to sell the solution to their customers.  This is a really rough place for the team to start from!

This wasn’t what they had learned in the bootcamp either.  There they learned that they needed to have a beginner’s mind and explore the problem from their customer’s perspective.  They heard that they should expect to pivot from their original solution idea over the course of the program.  And they delved into how to discover, ideate and prototype a solution, running through exercises to practice what they learned.  But what they didn’t hear is what outcome they should expect at the end of the next 12 weeks.  And they didn’t learn specifically how to apply the theories in their organization, to the problem they were trying to solve.

With other teams, I have seen similar mismatches as they try to apply an innovation framework in their organization including:

  • Getting stuck in endless problem discovery as internal stakeholders tell the team that the problem they presented is not really an issue or not their problem to solve.
  • Sales teams not providing access to customers saying, “Ask us! We know everything our customer would say.” 
  • Belated analysis of existing customer data because the team didn’t know what to ask for and the data is not readily accessible.
  • Misunderstood internal processes that (sometimes intentionally) prevent teams from talking to their customers.
  • Discomfort with or hiding innovation results because it reveals that what the organization is producing has little value to customers.
  • Solution ideas that require changes in business or operational models are rejected because “its not the way we do things here”.
  • If not everyone on the team went through bootcamp or a new member joins later in the project, there isn’t alignment on how to approach innovation and the team becomes dysfunctional.
  • Little access to how things are done in different industries or experts in that could help the team approach the idea differently because of fear of exposing what the team is doing outside the organization.
  • Limited engagement with leadership through the innovation process so leaders don’t follow the team’s pivot and the project is deemed a failure because it did not produce the expected solution.

Help for navigating your innovation journey

Before you give up on innovation completely, consider a different approach.  What if you were able to take the best methods and practices and intentionally design an innovation blueprint that worked with your organization instead of against it?  What if you had help from someone who had done this a thousand times before to identify and resolve issues quickly?  Someone who understood the why behind innovation methods such as design thinking or lean startup and could help you apply them in your organization?  What if at the same time innovation teams were discovering, designing and testing ideas, your organization was building and iterating an innovation process that works for you?  This is what a good innovation coach does best.

While this will take investment, it isn’t as big as hiring a big consulting firm to create your innovation strategy or sending your future innovation leaders to professional development programs at an ivy league school, both of which will yield more theory than practice.  Engagement with an innovation coach looks more like this:

  1. Upfront time with leadership to understand the organization’s goals and barriers to innovation, tuning training to address those challenges.
  2. Delivery of customized training to (at least 3) innovation teams who, with the help of the coach, will develop their project plans during the session and learn how to work together as an innovation team.
  3. Access to tools and templates specifically recommended by the innovation coach because they will help the organization transition to the envisioned innovation culture.
  4. Weekly coaching and facilitation of working sessions to help teams apply tools to their project.
  5. Monthly sessions with leadership to assess team’s progress, break down barriers and iteratively design the organization’s innovation strategy.
  6. Quarterly report of team’s learning about the problem they are addressing and a pitch for funding the projects that make up innovation portfolio.
  7. Return on Investment dashboard that helps leadership decide where to invest their innovation dollars based on what is contributing to their unique innovation system.

Every organization is filled with creative people that if mentored and directed appropriately, has the power to innovate.  It takes intentional effort but its not as hard as we make it out to be; we just have to get out of these employee’s way and give them the support they need to think outside the company norms.  Rebecca Henderson dubbed this, “Architectural Innovation”, a required step for ensuring that innovation that took a team outside the current organizational model would work.  But she also said it is hard, which is why it isn’t a good idea to go it alone.  One of my biggest inspirations in this space is Jim Hackett, currently CEO of Ford, who I met when he was first implementing design thinking at Steelcase.  If he can do it in a centuries old organization like Steelcase, and now Ford, I firmly believe that with the right support, you can too.

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