A Research Paper By Silvia Corlazzoli, Business coach, GERMANY
The role of a coach can be instrumental in creating an effective outcome, for either an individual or organization. In this paper, I will discuss the relationship between coaching and innovation. I will go further and focus on the connection points between innovation in both individuals and organizations. To effectively do this, I will start this research by examining aspects of innovation. I will make a comparison between what is happening at personal and company levels and then close by suggesting how coaching can support companies.
As a coach, I believe in challenging clients to envision success as well as supporting them in defining the first step to achieve it. An effective coach is present throughout the client’s progress, helping them understand what works and refreshing or updating things that don’t work. An effective coach knows that it is a journey, made up of moments of enthusiasm and energy, of stopping, struggling, and even discouragement. It is a journey made of searching and requires making space. To welcome something new, one needs to let go of something old. A coach knows how to listen, understand, to be challenging.
This is what I try my best as a coach and what my coach did for me in the story I am going to tell you.
Coaching and Innovation Story
Here is my anecdote, my personal experience that influenced this research.
Having completed the more practical learning phase of this program, which I must admit I found intense but interesting, stimulating, profound, and enjoyable, it was now time for the second part. One of the requirements for the program was to write this research paper, which turned out to be more challenging than I anticipated.
I have years of experience working in large corporate companies. These years have been loaded with great responsibility, and with all that responsibility, I believe I never missed a deadline.
When I started my coaching certification program, unconsciously I thought that I would do as I have always done: have a clear objective, prepare my plan with priorities, and establish a timeframe in which to do it. And lastly, but most importantly, I would do everything necessary to earn my certification. It seemed easy, as achieving my goals is something I had always done and succeeded in. I didn’t think for a moment that it might be difficult for me to meet this task.
I started working on one of my certification requirements, specifically this present research presentation. The first attempt did not go as well as I wanted and expected it to, and the second attempt resulted in the same on the third trial, I started to get scared. I couldn’t write. I had made several attempts and continued to fail.
The more I failed, the smaller I felt. It was like I couldn’t rely on myself anymore. I had evidence that I was unable to meet a deadline. Nothing was helping me move forward and I felt stuck, bored by my own stories. I almost agreed with the doubt that I was telling myself lies.
I figured I would give myself a deadline just for me. I wanted to become my own boss, the one to be accountable to, the one to be complimented, and the one to be pleased with at the same time. However, I needed to have a conversation with someone. The most ideal person was a fellow coach.
I realized that the first thing I had to deal with was motivation. I wanted to write these papers because I wanted to get certified and work as a coach. This was good, but not good enough as direct motivation. I needed to write something that made sense both to me and others, something worth sharing. Clearly, my strategy from my experience in the corporate world was not working in this scenario. I had to prove to myself that I am capable of making adjustments and doing things differently.
Using a different lens, I realized that what I wanted was clear. I also felt that once this will, vision, and goal emerged, I needed to make it strong. I needed a connection, a strong connection with intent.
During the coaching session, I found some new practices to test. The first one was to try my best to stay connected with the vision. When I woke up every morning, I imagined how my life could be different as a coach using visualization techniques.
At 8:30 p.m. every day, I set an alarm clock with a song that is evocative to me: “oh Superman” by Laurie Anderson. I used this technique to remind myself that I had something important to do. I also promised myself to write something every day. It could be a sentence or a thought, something of mine to share with others and to re-read afterward to find a common thread and perhaps discover a theme I liked. Already, within a week, I must admit that my connection through these practices was increasing.
In one of the sessions, something else unexpected happened; I dug deeper and found myself reliving a moment when I had to do an assignment as a child. The task was to write down what I saw through my window. It was one of the typical school tasks given in Italy where I grew up. However, it was a grey day with rain and fog, and I couldn’t see anything interesting from my window. In fact, I couldn’t see anything at all, and I felt like crying. Reliving that emotion was very strong. I felt that there was something so deep and distant behind me, as another example of not being able to write. It was a surprise and revelation to me.
Adult Silvia wanted to take care of child Silvia at that point. Adult Silvia has other tools that child Silvia did not have. I wondered what I would say to the child Silvia? Immediately the creative moment arrived:
- Change the title. Think about what else you would like to write.
- Close your eyes and imagine. Use your imagination.
- Call a friend and ask her what she sees from her window.
- Think of another window that you like and write.
And so on…
I took care of the child and did it as an adult. Within a week the Silvia child was happy.
And I had an idea.
As I couldn’t go back in time to change how I handled things when I was younger, I figured I had to use these suggestions to improve my current situation. I started asking myself some questions: What do I like to write? I like to write letters. I don’t like to write formal, academic things. Letters give me a sense of intimacy. I feel like I’m talking to someone at a personal level. I concluded that I would write a letter.
So, I gave further thought to the letter, the material, the structure, and the tone.
I am writing this research letter on an alternative Friday evening from a laundrette. This is my personal research. I am writing and I feel as connected to the process as I had hoped to be.
When I started this project, the connection between my intent and motivation was a 3. This is on a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is low and 10 is high). At this point, the connection was now at a 9. I celebrated this new Silvia with a nature walk under the stars.
I went on to tell myself that when I turn in this paper, I’m going to treat myself to a weekend in a new city that I’ve wanted to go to for a long time. I want to go there fulfilled and carefree. I had a strong feeling that something had changed. I felt that I had succeeded in overcoming the obstacles that I was facing, and I was proud of myself.
What Is Innovation?
What I wrote in the letter and felt like sharing is about innovation.
I was drawn towards this topic because it is part of our everyday life, and in recent years I’ve had the opportunity to work on it at a personal level. I have also been part of a consulting team on innovation for a corporate organization.
I start by addressing the question: What is innovation? Each person gives a different meaning to the same word. I have read many definitions of innovation and I also understand, based on my personal experience, that what innovation means to me might be different from what it means to you. Skipping the dictionary definitions, I would take you to my favorite.
In his book, The Little Black Book of Innovation, Scott D. Anthony started defining innovation in 5 simple words: “something different that creates value.” Before him, Benoit Godin, professor at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique, defined innovation in another interesting way: “a deliberate human change to something existing to create something new.”
Then Fabio Salvadori who in his book Subtractionwas inspired by both above definitions came up with this:
“Innovation is an intentional, human-driven change of something existing into something new, which generates an impact.” I find this definition complete as it includes:
- Intentionality vs. the natural evolution of something,
- Change of something existing vs. invention,
- Which generates an impact. Here the tangibility, the measure of innovation moves from value (S. Anthony) to impact (F. Salvadori). And impact resonates much more through the influence it can have. A more long-term influence.
Writing this letter, for me, was about voicing my idea of how to develop the research paper and putting it into practice.
I did something I had to do, in my own way and in a new way for me. Doing something (in this case, completing the writing task) in a new way, voluntarily and with an impact, is Innovation.
Looking at the process that helped me to change, the fundamentals I found for personal innovation are:
- Creativity: Using curiosity to explore new ways to do things. Allowing myself to focus on what I like to do, what I could do better.
- Connection: Daily connection to my goal through new daily practices to be experienced.
- Time: To achieve new results through new ways and paths takes time. I realized the importance of leaving time available. Even empty time, to make something happen. I made room for a time dedicated to this evolution.
- Support: The importance of having someone you can rely on when it comes to supporting, one who is committed to helping you achieve your goals in a way that you want to achieve them. This someone would challenge and empower me. This is what my fellow coach has done for me.
What happened when I started writing, is what I also describe in my coaching model. The Update coaching model is based on 6 steps:
- DEFINE the goal, the dream.
- CONNECT to oneself, understand oneself, identify what works and what must change, and recognize one’s own resources.
- IDEATE the possible options and solutions with all the senses at your disposal.
- PLAN the smallest thing to start doing and think about when to do it, how, with what resources, who or what can support it, and how to overcome possible obstacles.
- ACT and do it. Push the button. Start.
- LEARN, measuring progress based on what works, what doesn’t, how to use the new findings, and awareness.
And these are the steps that lead to personal innovation. Most of the work is done by the individual. However, having a coach means having someone who supports the process of renewal and innovation, of growth.
Innovation in Organisations
After I achieved awareness regarding personal innovation, I zoomed out and thought about organizations and companies, including how they work and how I have seen effective and ineffective innovation. I have worked for many years in various financial services, corporate companies, and most recently as a consultant in an innovation team. This consulting role allowed me to see that innovation potential in companies is immense.
The parallel between coaching and innovation is strong. It’s a parallel in terms of results: in one case you innovate the person, and in the other, everything else.
The parallels are also strong in terms of steps, the journey to take, and the variables that come into play.
Even with the innovative techniques and methodologies used by companies like Design Thinking, Scrum, and Agile, in general, the same similarities can be found.
Coaching is innovation itself, even deep innovation, and that is why it is a powerful and natural amplifier and catalyst of innovation in companies as well.
In his book “Eat, Sleep, Innovate,” which I had the opportunity to read after I wrote my letter, S. Anthony presents his theory of how to make innovation a day-to-day habit in an organization. “You eat every day, you sleep every day and in today’s quickly changing world means you should innovate every day.”
He talks about a culture of innovation within organizations. Anthony indicates that though people may assume innovation is a “mystical activity” requiring beyond-human skills, it is actually a discipline. As such, it can be “managed, measured, mastered, and improved with careful practice. And that “Innovators are consistently searching for different and better ways to do things.”
The more a person is used to working on themselves and becomes accustomed to coaching, the more the organization can benefit. Involving teams, workgroups, communities, and leaders is much easier. It is like speaking the same languages, understanding each other.
Moving from personal work to organizational work is about changing the organization’s culture. And cultural change takes time. Not all individuals experience a growth at the same rate, and some may be resistant to new strategies, outlooks, and perceptions. In addition, those at the leadership level of an organization must not only model cultural changes; they must also be part of the change.
I have seen as part of the organizational procedure the launch of several innovative projects. However, I have only seen this process work in one company. I have seen this transformation of the DNA of the company. It took four years to start to see the impacts of the new way of working and to work differently.
Other timid attempts made that just claimed to be innovative, digital, agile, did not work. On the contrary, they have contributed to increased frustration and demotivation. Changing corporate culture is not something that can be done timidly, or without great commitment.
For organizations I would change the steps of the Update coaching model in this way:
- DEFINE the desired culture, the desired mindset.
- CONNECT to the people with empathy, identify what works and what is prioritized to change, recognize one’s own resources. With transparency.
- IDEATEtogether the possible solutions. Ideations recall creativity, trigger curiosity.
- PLAN the smallest thing to start doing and think about when to do it, how, with what resources, who or what can support them, and how to overcome possible obstacles. For organizations, allocating the right resources in terms of budget is a key element for success.
- ACT and do it. Experiment.
- LEARN measuring progress based on what works, what doesn’t, how to use the new findings, and awareness. The lesson-learning moments are not a waste of time. They contribute to share and celebrate success stories, to inspire, to be aware of some possible mistakes, and to learn how to survive errors and failures.
Coaches are the catalysts that foster innovation, first on a personal level. Then, this way of working, listening, acting, will subsequently be transferred to the organizational level with amplified consequences.
Having a coach means that individuals in the organization will have a clear understanding of the steps mentioned above, of the innovation journey and will start to apply them on more levels.
The support of coaches and mentors facilitates and accelerates the process of change and growth at both an individual and organizational level.
Coaching allows the people who use it to innovate by encouraging personal effort along with guidance and support. This applies to organizations as well, since they are complex, but are made up of people. On a personal level, the more people that know and understand how to innovate for themselves, the more they will be able to replicate this experience in the collective sphere, that of teamwork and leadership.
Tailored practices, tools, and methodologies can be established for the teams working in an organization.
A specific focus is generally required for management leaders, as culture change within an organization takes time and consistency in addition to active participation from senior leaders.
All companies today are called upon to innovate: some want to, some say so, but often they are not aware of the path of change this requires.
Coaching and innovation combined allow for both personal growth and successful organizational outcomes.
It is not magic, but the impact can be magical.
Scott D. Anthony, Paul Cobban, Natalie Painchaud, Andy Parker: Eat, Sleep, Innovate: How to Make Creativity an Everyday Habit Inside Your Organisation
Scott D. Anthony: The Little BlackBook of Innovation
Francesca Gino: Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life
Leon Vanderpol: A Shift in Being: The Art and Practices of Deep Transformational Coaching