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What Makes A Good Innovation Coach?

In a previous article, I wrote about how companies can stop relying on consultants and build their own innovation capabilities. It is difficult to scale innovation as a repeatable process if companies continue to rely on external coaching and training for their innovation teams. One way to think about innovation capabilities is to treat it as an organizational muscle. You need to keep it in shape so that the company can quickly respond to disruption when it occurs. 

Over the years, I have worked with several organizations to help them develop a group of internal innovation coaches that can support their teams. In that time, I have learned a few lessons about what makes for good innovation coaching within corporate settings. Intrapreneurship is an interesting paradox in which innovators have to be both entrepreneurial and good at navigating corporate politics. As such, companies need to recruit coaches that understand this tension and how to help internal teams to navigate it. 

Selecting The Right Coaches

Before we discuss the behaviors that make for good innovation coaching, it is important that companies select the right types of coaches in the first place. The one mistake I have seen companies make is that they focus on hiring as coaches people who are enthusiastic about innovation. This type of recruitment focuses on those individuals who have been attending innovation workshops and have deeply studied lean, agile and business model design. If those individuals are also part of innovation teams that are currently working in the organization, then their chances of being selected go up. 

However, having a passion for innovation is not sufficient. When Kaaren Hanson was leading the rollout of the Design for Delight (D4D) program in Intuit, they recruited a group of design thinking coaches who they dubbed “innovation catalysts”. After recruiting the first cohort, Hanson learned that the best design thinkers do not necessarily make the best catalysts. Instead, the best design thinkers become good catalysts when they are also passionate about helping others do great work. 

As such, when selecting innovation coaches you are looking for a combination of two factors. You are looking for people with a significant and demonstrable interest in innovation methods such as design thinking, agile and lean startup. But they also need to have a significant and demonstrable interest in training and coaching other people to use these innovation methods. 

The Right Coaching Behaviours

After they have been recruited and trained, the innovation coaches will start doing their work in the company. Innovation coaching is difficult work. This is because it involves teaching people new behaviours within an organisational context that is not set up to support those behaviours. So you are not just teaching people to innovate, you are also teaching people how to do this successfully within the constraints of your company. In my experience, the best innovation coaches have to be able to do the following: 

Be a challenger:  This involves challenging people’s preconceived ideas about what works in the context of innovation. There are two types of bad innovation coaches in this regard. The first ones are those who are too afraid to give negative feedback to teams. The second group are those who give their negative feedback in too aggressive a manner.  In innovation coaching, you have to throw what Alex Osterwalder calls “diplomatic hand grenades”. You have to show teams the mirror without fear or humiliating them.

Be a facilitator: Some coaches find it really difficult to play a neutral role within the team. However, even as you are challenging teams, you cannot be the one telling them what to do. You have to somehow get teams to take bold and unexpected directions without telling them what to do. Being a great facilitator is the innovation coach’s superpower. One technique is to ask the right questions at the right time. Using open-ended questions framed as “what-if” scenarios is one the best ways to inspire breakthrough design. 

Provide practical advice: Innovation coaching is not about giving motivational speeches. You have to get people inspired without the blah blah. What people are looking for are practical tools to use in their day to day work. You don’t want people to walk away from a session with you feeling inspired but having no idea of what they need to do next.  This is where choosing the right tools to use when coaching teams becomes important. Innovation coaches should master the right tools to inspire great value proposition and business model design. They should also master the right tools to help teams identify assumptions and test their business ideas.


Innovation coaching has become an important process for companies who are building internal innovation capabilities.  However, in order to scale successfully – you have to select the right coaches and those coaches need to show that right behaviour. With these capabilities in place, a company is more likely to reduce their dependence on external coaches and consultants.

This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at

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