Taking Innovation Beyond Buzz Word

Innovation is the word of the day. From the classroom to the boardroom to the White House, it is being invoked as a mantra for leadership and success. All well and good. But how does one foster an environment that encourages new thinking and nurtures the pioneers who will exercise it?

Coaching can provide a process for recognizing the need for innovation as well as opportunities to pursue it. This is because the coaching process itself models the kinds of dialogs, deep thinking and listening that foster innovation.

Abby is a senior manager in a mid-sized tech services company. She has hired a coach to work with her on enhancing her leadership in driving innovation. Her company faces increasing competition in the marketplace, and she needs to light a fire under her sales and marketing group to help grow their customer base.

Abby’s coach listened carefully to how she presented the situation and how she defined her goal. He noticed that Abby never mentioned herself in terms of the challenge. He asked her to explain what she meant by innovation. This forced Abby to think more specifically about what she envisioned. He asked her what was at stake: What were the risks? What were the benefits? How did she feel about taking risk? What could make her more comfortable with failing? What had she learned from previous failures? How had she addressed the challenge with her people? What could she do differently?

Over a series of coaching conversations, these questions revealed to Abby her own aversion to risk and failure, and enabled her to role-play “what ifs.” The coaching process allowed her to “test drive” a new approach with her group. She conducted a full-team brainstorming session, supporting totally free-wheeling thinking and sharing of ideas. She offered feedback and acknowledgment throughout the process, both modeling and encouraging her people to do the same. The session identified a short-list of the most viable ideas, and Abby asked sub-teams to do a cost-benefit analysis and come back to present to the group. She was actively and encouragingly moving the process forward.

Abby remarked at how engaged the group was while generating ideas. She recognized that in freeing herself up to consider even “bad” or seemingly off-the-wall ideas, she had also freed her group. She saw that her coach’s layered questioning and critical listening had modeled behaviors for her to follow with her own people. This helped them reframe their thinking to allow for new insights into their existing customers and open the door to markets they hadn’t previously considered. The collaborative nature of her coaching process had also modeled a healthy give and take in her group.

Abby’s take-aways to drive innovation:

  • Inspire and support risk taking
  • Have a stomach for failing
  • Design opportunities for freely sharing ideas, and encourage critical listening and thought-provoking questions
  • Offer plenty of feedback, acknowledgment and appreciation in developing people

Coaching succeeded in helping Abby drive innovation in her team, while simultaneously helping her innovate ways she worked with them.

What does “innovation” mean to you?
What factor(s) has been critical in your own involvement in a new initiative for growth/change?

If you found this post helpful, check out “About the Book” on this blog, and order yourself a copy of “What could happen if you do nothing?” A manager’s handbook for coaching conversations.

2 Responses to “Taking Innovation Beyond Buzz Word”

  1. Libby
    June 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    wow! Why can’t I think of things like that?

  2. Taran
    June 18, 2011 at 9:54 am #

    I’m not easily impessred. . . but that’s impressing me! 🙂