Before you hire an innovation coach: spend 30 minutes asking these 7 questions

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Before you hire an innovation coach: spend 30 minutes asking these 7 questions

Are you considering to hire an innovation coach? Do you want to reach a specific goal, or are you looking for a broad implementation of an innovation strategy? Maybe you just want to reach new financial heights and you decided that innovation is the way to do this?

In my corporate life, I have worked with my fair share of coaches and consultants. I have experienced some great coaches…and some who were not. I always got something out of it: if only from the interaction and the different perspective these outsiders would provide.

There are many reasons to hire a coach. You might feel stagnated in your endeavours, you might feel frustrated because you have a seemingly insurmountable hurdle in front of you. Or you just want to reach better income and profit the quickest way possible, without having to go through all the learning yourself.

If you are on the fence, here is some customer feedback the International Coaching Federation has collected on coaching effectiveness:

96% of companies polled were satisfied with their decision to hire a coach,
70% say they experienced improved work performance,
and 86% say they at least made
 their investment back.

In the end it is up to you though. Whatever area you hire a coach for, you should have the desire to grow that area beyond your current level – and as quickly and effectively as possible.

Now that you have decided you want to hire a coach, you want the best. Here are the 7 questions you should ask an innovation coach. Their answers will reveal what type of person this coach is. In 30 minutes you will know whether it is the right coach for you.

1. Have you done your own innovation other than coaching?

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”    

Julius Caesar

When you hire a coach, this person should have been living the very area they are coaching. For an innovation coach, this means they must have experience with developing and launching an innovation. It is not enough to know the theory, your possible coach has to have the practical experience. It is still true that practicality is much more unruly than theory.

In addition to the practical experience, the coach should also know what success looks like in innovation. The reason is simple. A lifetime of experiences in failing does not inspire trust that this time it will be a success.

Ask for the practical experience the coach has in innovation, and how successful this was.

2. What experience do you have with companies like mine?

“No matter how much experience you have, there’s always something new you can learn and room for improvement.”    

Roy T. Bennett

Innovation coaching can be classified as specialty coaching. People specializing in innovation know at the highest level how to develop new solutions. They will have knowledge on gaining customer insights, on stimulating creative thinking, and on testing and experimentation.

Still, innovation comes in many shapes and forms. You can innovate in products, in services, in manufacturing and in business models. This makes a difference. Having to develop a new IT solution is a very different exercise from having to develop water proof mascara.

Should you then have the experience of the coach align with your specific industry? On the pro side is that they understand the history, trends, business model and opportunities in a given industry. This is especially helpful if you are struggling with the basics in your business.

On the con side is that they might not bring a new perspective if you need one. A coach from a different area might help you to think differently and deepen your mastery in other areas.

In the case of an innovation coach, I would recommend to use broad classification – products, services, business models, IT - to determine if there is a fit. A coach with a background in developing products can help in any type of physical product. On the other hand, this coach would not be the person to help you energize your failing software development.

3. Have you experienced failure?

“Successful people have no fear of failure. But unsuccessful people do. Successful people have the resilience to face up to failure—learn the lessons and adapt from it ."   

Roy T. Bennett

The simple truth is that no great success was ever achieved without failure. Edison eligedly took 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb. Dyson took over 5000 attempts to invent a bagless vacuum cleaner. Edison’s comment?

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”

How a person has handled adversity will tell a lot about the person.

Nowadays it is more common to be more open about failures, although it can still be difficult for some. The candor of the answer you get from your candidate coach will be telling in itself. A willingness to share the challenges they’ve overcome, will tell you how authentic the coach is.

There is one final, practical point. Any mistakes they have already made, they will not make when coaching you. It will make their coaching better, deeper and more impactful.

4. What background do you have in coaching?

“The power of coaching is this - you are expected to give people the path to find answers, not the answers."   

Tom Mahalo

Most people who call themselves “coaches” that don’t have training are really just consultants. They are industry experts or possibly specialists in some way and they TELL YOU WHAT TO DO. On the contrary, a trained coach creates a space for you to discover your path. They are trained to help you in a way that usually catalyzes lasting change or shift.

Normally certifications, and diploms are a good way to establish credibility. Unfortunately, coaching is not regulated at this time by any country. In an unregulated industry, not all courses that certify coaches are created equally.

Apart from certification it is important to look at coaching experience. Coaching experience will shine through from having done facilitations, where you help a group achieve a goal without any input from yourself. This is the type of activity that requires the facilitator to get the best out of people without providing the answer.

Sometimes people come from leadership positions in a company to coaching. Their leadership style is a good indication of their coaching skills. Coaching is now widely seen as a core skill for any future leader. The indicator of good coaching skill is when a leader has increased the performance of the team without being directive. That is definitely something to discuss when talking to a coach with this background.  

5. What makes you different?

Life's no piece of cake, mind you, but the recipe's my own to fool with."   

Haruki Murakami

This is one of those questions where the content of the answer is not as important as how they deliver the answer.

Are you getting a lot of fluffy words and jargon? Their approach is going to contain lots of generic tools and programs, and will be less about you. The worst case scenarion is that they are more consultant than coach. They will tell you what to do without any attention for your specific situation and needs.

Are you getting a clear and understandable answer? They have thought about what they as a person can bring to you, and what makes them different. They are more likely to focus on your psecific needs - although you might not like their way of doing it.

6. What are you hoping an innovation coach can do?

Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship. The act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth."    

Peter Drucker

You might wonder if this should not be the first question you must ask? Was this the first question that popped into your mind when you were reading the title?

It is at the end rather than at the beginning because I assumed you have passed that moment already. As I said in the beginning, you decided you WANT a coach. So you have already decided to seek the help of a coach, you have not yet decided who it will be.

With this in mind, this question is too generic and needs rephrasing. The right question to ask must relate to the outcome you want. For example, suppose you want a coach to grow the company’s sales by launching innovations. The question to ask is ‘how will you help us innovate to grow our sales?'

Now here is the trick. If a coach starts answering this question immediately when you pose it, be wary. No coach knows your situation during this first introduction. The coach that jumps in with suggestions and claims is not likely to be a good listener. A good listener would first seek to understand what you are currently doing and what is currently working. In this introductory session, that information is not yet available. Ergo, the right answer to your question should be ‘it depends on your situation’. A good coach then proceeds to give you some insights into how innovation can drive sales.

7. How will we be tracking progress for the duration of the innovation coaching?

Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress."    

Alfred Armand Montapert

Innovation is a longer term goal. You need to have feedback along the way, and benchmarks to measure progress. Any coaching plan must have this, so this is not different for innovation coaching.

This question might surprise some of the coaches out there. When it does, be wary. Would you want to hire a coach that cannot give you milestones along the way? Milestones that are good progress indicators of getting closer to you goal. It is easy to make a promise you will reach your endpoint in a year. I would like to have a measure of progress for that. If you would as well, ask.

There you have it: 7 questions to help you when hiring an innovation coach. You decided you want a coach, now commit to the work of finding the right one. Do not go by a website only. Have a personal conversation with a potential coach. It will take you 30 minutes to go through the questions, and you get to know the person well. Talk to them, and then decide whether it is a fit.

Want to hire an innovation coach? 

Find out what my answers are to these 7 questions.

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About the Author

I am Robert Uhlhorn, an experienced and engaged innovator. I have been living new product development in large corporations for over 25 years. From this, I went on to develop the FTL method: the fast, transparent, and lean way of growing your business with innovative products. I love to travel and to spend quality time with my family.

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