Deep innovation knowledge and insights from experts of the verrocchio Institute 

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What does a good innovation coach do?

In today’s world, which is largely characterized by a fast pace of life, complexity, but also uncertainty, creative thinking and a wealth of ideas are more important than ever. Successful and sustainable innovations are therefore essential for companies to survive and a good innovation coach is practically indispensable for this. But what exactly is the key to a good innovation coach? In this article, I will talk about the role and tasks of an Innovation Coach in detail and clearly present them from A to Z. I have been working as an innovation coach for 15 years and have trained more than 500 innovation coaches in the course of my career.

What is the role of an Innovation Coach?

First of all, an innovation coach plays a central role in developing a culture of innovation within the company, which is the absolutely necessary foundation for the success of innovation. In addition to the responsibility of laying the foundation for the right mindset and making innovation fundamentally visible to all, he also supports teams in developing new ideas and innovations, optimizing innovation processes and overcoming obstacles using proven methods and strategies.

The coach acts as a catalyst for creative thinking, pattern breaking, and fosters multidisciplinary collaboration between different departments of the company.

Innovation Coach in action in a customer workshop
Typical workshop situation of an Innovation Coach – Photo: Christina Fiedler

The ability to develop the creative potential of teams and turn their ideas into successful innovations is the key to gaining competitive advantage and driving business growth. What exactly belongs to this ability, I would like to explain in more detail below.

In the course of this, I would like to answer the following questions:

  • What is the role of an Innovation Coach?
  • What are the most important tasks of an Innovation Coach?
  • Who can become an Innovation Coach?
  • Where can I get training to become an Innovation Coach?
  • What is my gain from a training as an Innovation Coach?
  • Does the Innovation Coach also exist in international companies?
  • What tools and methods should an innovation coach be familiar with?
  • Which obstacle effects and challenges must an innovation coach be able to deal with?

What are the most important tasks of an Innovation Coach?

The central tasks that an Innovation Coach should deal with in his professional life can be summed up in a total of 10 work packages. It is important for me to emphasize that a coach does not have to handle these work packages alone, of course; a good network within his own company is essential for his work.

  1. Fostering a Culture of Innovation
    An Innovation Coach is responsible for promoting a culture of experimentation, learning and openness to new ideas within the company. He encourages employees to take risks and pursue innovative approaches.
  2. Identifying innovation opportunities
    The coach helps identifying innovation opportunities by analyzing market trends, considering customer feedback, and monitoring the competition. He encourages employees to actively seek new opportunities and develop innovative business models.
  3. Idea Generation Support
    An Innovation Coach uses various creativity techniques and methods to help teams generate new ideas. He facilitates brainstorming sessions, organizes design thinking workshops, and promotes the exchange of ideas within the team.
  4. Developing innovation strategies
    The coach supports the company in developing innovation strategies based on the identified opportunities. He helps defining clear goals, selecting the right innovation projects, and setting milestones for implementation.
  5. Building interdisciplinary teams
    Innovation often requires collaboration between different departments and disciplines. The Innovation Coach helps creating interdisciplinary teams that have different expertise and work together on innovative solutions.
  6. Promoting the innovation process
    The coach establishes effective innovation processes and ensures that they are applied throughout the company. He supports the definition of innovation phases, the execution of prototype tests and the implementation of feedback loops.
  7. Mentoring and support
    An innovation coach also acts as a mentor to employees, helping them develop their innovative skills and realize their potential. He provides individual support, gives constructive feedback and encourages learning from mistakes.
  8. Overcoming resistance
    Innovation processes can encounter resistance, whether due to hierarchies, fear of change, or limited resources. The innovation coach works on identifying and overcoming these resistances by encouraging open communication and actively addressing obstacles.
  9. Promoting networking
    The coach promotes exchange and networking with external innovation networks, start-ups, universities and other organizations – bringing new perspectives and ideas into the company and increases its ability to innovate.
  10. Measurement and evaluation of innovation progress and innovation capability
    An innovation coach supports the company in measuring and evaluating progress in relation to innovation projects. He develops metrics and indicators to assess success and makes recommendations for developing the innovation strategy.

Who can become an Innovation Coach?

Generally speaking, anyone can become an Innovation Coach – there are no specific prerequisites. However, an employee who wants to become an Innovation Coach should have a certain set of skills to be effective and feel comfortable in the role. The soft skills I have listed are, of course, the ideal state and are in no way meant to imply that someone is not suitable as an Innovation Coach if they do not correlate with each of these skills. This set is more about self-assessment and giving an idea for what matters when working as an Innovation Coach.

First of all, an Innovation Coach should naturally be able to think inventively, to think “outside the box,” and to find new solutions to complex problems. In my experience, this fundamentally broad-based ability to “think around corners” is part of the personality of many Innovation Coaches, which often drives these people to join an innovating team in the first place.

In addition, an Innovation Coach works closely with different teams and must therefore be able to communicate clearly, appreciatively and convincingly. This type of empathy towards colleagues also seamlessly transitions into the ability to lead and inspire teams. That’s why you should have a positive attitude and the ability to motivate others to implement and advocate for their ideas and visions. This is the only way to help your team achieve real innovation success.

Of course, once innovations are up and running, they require a change in the company or even pattern breaks. Therefore, you should also be able to quickly adapt to new situations and be flexible. In addition, a good understanding of different business areas and technologies is very helpful, as innovation often arises at the interface of different disciplines.

Both communication and adaptability skills are closely related to another skill that is essential to a good Innovation Coach: a very good conflict management. When introducing new ideas and changes, conflicts and disagreements are inevitable and therefore often part of the daily routine of an innovation coach. An innovation coach should therefore have effective conflict management skills or facilitation skills. Knowledge and experience in mediation may also prove helpful in this context.

While not always a requirement, experience in a specific industry or role can be a valuable asset. An employee who wants to become an Innovation Coach should therefore also be willing to continuously learn and develop his or her skills. There are a lot of training and certification programs that can be helpful.

Last but not least, however, I would like to highlight one aspect once again. As a good Innovation Coach, you should be fundamentally curious about things, about the world, and the people around you. Curiosity is the driver of questions, ideas and in the end – innovations. From my experience, being positively curious and having a high playful willingness to experiment are probably the most important skills that an Innovation Coach should have.

Where can I get training to become an Innovation Coach?

As soon as you start looking for a suitable provider, you should make sure that the provider perceptibly adapts his training to new developments (such as: use of artificial intelligence) and works as an innovation coach himself, so tha the necessary and essential practical experience is available.

Also, make sure that the group, in which the training takes place, is not too large. Learning groups that consist of 15 participants are very helpful in an Innovation Coach training, because that means, there is still room for individual coaching.

We at verrocchio Institute have been offering Innovation Coach training for over 10 years now. This training consists of 5 parts that can be visited individually or as a whole training.

The individual modules are:

Participants of the Innovation Coach training in the Facilitator Module
Participants of the Innovation Coach training in the facilitator module – Photo: Benno van Aerssen

What is my gain from a training as an Innovation Coach?

From my experience, becoming an Innovation Coach can lead to several personal and professional benefits. I have summarized some of these benefits that I perceive in my career to illustrate the diversity of this job.

As the importance of innovation grows in almost every industry, so does the demand for professionals who can help companies be more creative and innovative. As an Innovation Coach, you’re in a golden position here. Your valuable innovation knowledge is not bound to any type of industry, so that you are practically free to choose your personal field of activity. You see, you can only benefit from this increasing demand and position yourself as a valuable candidate on the job market.

As an Innovation Coach, you also have the opportunity to reach higher leadership and management positions and actively develop your own career. Especially in progressive companies, innovation coaches are increasingly in demand in leadership positions. Because working as an Innovation Coach both requires and encourages a high level of creativity, problem-solving skills, and interpersonal skills, he is essentially a born leader. Moreover, these skills can naturally be useful in many areas of life, not only in a professional context.

As an Innovation Coach, you also have the opportunity to significantly influence the direction and future of a company, especially if you are in a leading position. Your sphere of influence in the company increases almost automatically. Depending on the area of activity, you can, for example, help developing new products, services or processes that make a real difference. But it is not only on the material level where you can experience the influence of your own actions. A lot of people find it satisfying to help others realize their full creative potential and develop innovative solutions. With your positive emphatic and curious nature, you can inspire people and be a role model to those around you. So as an Innovation Coach, you’re pretty much in a position where you actively increase your own professional satisfaction.

Last but not least, I would like to emphasize one aspect, that is also important to me personally: Innovation coaches always work with different teams and departments in a multidisciplinary way, which gives you the opportunity to quickly expand your own network. This network however can open up completely new opportunities for you, and your contacts offer you quite a bit of potential knowledge and expertise.

So, overall, becoming an Innovation Coach can help you decisively advance your career, expand your skills, and make a valuable contribution to innovation in your company or even an entire industry.

Does the Innovation Coach also exist in international companies?

Very clear “YES” – innovation is a global topic and therefore tyou can find Innovation Coaches all around the world. At the verrocchio Institute we have trained Innovation Coaches for international customers in the USA, Mexico, Brazil, France and India. So nothing should stand in the way of an international career.

What tools and methods should an innovation coach be familiar with?

In addition to the soft skills I have already listed, there are of course a number of hard skills, if you can call it that way, that an innovation coach should have. A broad repertoire of methods and tools are indispensable to effectively support innovation processes.

I summarized the 10 most important methods and tools that an Innovation Coach should be familiar with:

  1. Design Thinking
    Design Thinking is THE iterative, agile process (used worldwide) for problemsolving that is based on the needs of the user which is the centre of the whole process. An innovation coach should be familiar with the different phases of design thinking, such as empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, and testing. Likewise, he should be able to master and moderate various formats such as design sprints.
  2. Brainstorming Techniques
    The innovation coach should be keen in various brainstorming techniques to help teams generate ideas. This includes techniques such as classic brainstorming, brainwriting, the six hats method, and the Walt Disney method.
  3. Business Model Canvas
    The Business Model Canvas is a tool for visualizing and developing business models, which was developed, among others, by Alexander Osterwalder. An Innovation Coach should be able to use the Business Model Canvas with teams to design and analyze new business models.
  4. Prototyping
    Prototyping is an important step in the innovation process. The coach should know various prototyping methods and materials and tools, whether these are paper-based prototypes, digital mock-ups, or 3D printing.
  5. Agile methods and ways of working
    Agile methods such as Scrum or Kanban are essential for the flexible and iterative development of innovations. An innovation coach should be well acquainted with the principles and practices of agile methods and be able to apply them when organizing innovation projects.
  6. Lean Startup
    The Lean Startup methodology focuses on rapid validation of hypotheses and continuous learning. An innovation coach should be familiar with Lean Startup principles such as building a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) and conducting experiments.
  7. Innovation Management Software
    There are several software tools that can support an innovation process by facilitating idea generation, collaboration and project tracking. An innovation coach should be familiar with innovation management software and be able to use it effectively.
  8. Trend analysis and trend work
    To identify innovation opportunities, an innovation coach should know about methods for analyzing trends and monitoring the market and industry. Understanding current and future trends helps the coach develop ideas and strategies to meet customer needs.
  9. Communication tools
    An innovation coach should have good communication skills and use tools to establish collaboration and communication within the team. These can be tools such as Slack, Trello or Microsoft Teams, which facilitate the exchange of information and teamwork.
  10. Innovation Assessment
    The innovation coach should be familiar with innovation assessment to evaluate the success and potential of innovation projects. This includes methods such as the Balanced Scorecard model, ROI analyses and qualitative assessments.

In addition to these methods and tools, however, it is also important to emphasize that an effective innovation coach is flexible in what he or she does and can constantly adapt his or her methods and tools to the specific needs of the company and teams. By applying a diverse set of methods and tools, the coach can effectively accompany innovation processes and thus maximize the success of innovation projects.

If you want to learn more about possible tools and methods: The toolset base of the Innovation Coach training of the verrocchio Institute is, among others, the books“Das große Handbuch Innovation” and“Das große Handbuch digitale Transformation“.

Which obstacle effects and challenges must an innovation coach be able to deal with?

I have already addressed the issue of conflict in the context of helpful skills. Good conflict management is indeed the be-all and end-all if you want to innovate successfully. This also goes hand in hand with the right way to deal with problems as they arise. Especially in traditional and conservative companies you often face very serious obstacles, problems and challenges that are simply part of innovation work. To give you a small idea of such possible obstacles, I have summarized the most common obstacles you will face in your work as an Innovation Coach:

  1. Resistance to change
    In traditional companies, resistance to change and new ideas can be high. Employees and managers often prefer the status quo and are skeptical of innovative approaches. An innovation coach must be able to overcome this resistance, communicate the benefits of innovation persuasively, and form new conclusions of meaning.
  2. Inhibiting hierarchical structures
    Conservative companies often have rigid hierarchical structures that can prevent decision-making and the implementation of innovations. An innovation coach must address these structures and work with the management to find ways to establish collaboration and the exchange of ideas across hierarchical boundaries.
  3. Lack of resources
    Often, traditional companies lack the necessary resources for innovation. Budget constraints, tight human resources, or limited access to external partners can complicate the innovation process. An innovation coach must be creative and find ways to work effectively with the resources at hand – “Innovation success is not a question of budget!” (Benno van Aerssen)
  4. Lack of mandates/support from management
    A lack of support from senior management can be a significant barrier to innovation. If top management does not visibly stand behind innovation efforts and does not provide a clear innovation strategy, it can be difficult to motivate employees and drive the innovation process. An innovation coach must be able to convince senior management of the importance of innovation and in order to gain support.
  5. Culture of fear of mistakes
    In traditional companies, there is often a culture of fear in making mistakes, where failure is punished. This can make employees reluctant to contribute new ideas or try innovative approaches. An innovation coach must establish a culture of error where experimentation is encouraged and learning from mistakes is encouraged.
  6. Lack of collaboration and blocking silo thinking
    In companies with traditional structures, departments often tend to work in isolation and do not share information. This can complicate the innovation process, as innovations often require interdisciplinary collaboration. An innovation coach must promote exchange between different departments and break down barriers to enable smooth collaboration.
  7. Lengthy decision-making processes
    In conservative companies, decision-making processes can be long and bureaucratic. This can slow down the innovation process and lead to frustration. An innovation coach must find ways to make decisions more efficiently and make the innovation process agile.
  8. Lack of innovation culture
    Traditional companies often lack a distinctive innovation culture in which creativity and innovation are encouraged. An innovation coach must work to establish such a culture by encouraging employees to contribute new ideas, take risks, and work collaboratively.
  9. Lack of innovation skills and knowledge
    In some cases, employees in traditional companies simply lack skills and knowledge in innovation. An innovation coach must provide training and education to strengthen the innovation potential in the company and bring employees up to speed.
  10. Lack of success measurement
    In many traditional companies, success is measured mainly by traditional metrics that may not take into account the specific success factors of innovations. An innovation coach must ensure that appropriate measures and indicators of success are developed to quantify and demonstrate the value of innovation.

An effective innovation coach must identify these obstacles and problems and develop ideas and strategies to overcome them. This requires a high degree of patience, creativity, perseverance, and a deep understanding of the corporate culture, as well as a willingness to adapt innovative approaches to pay attention to specific challenges and business goals.

My conclusion

As you see, the range of tasks and activities of an Innovation Coach is enormous. However, my experience over the last 15 years has shown me that this is exactly the reason for the uniqueness of this profession.

Every project is different, every workshop is different and especially the people and teams are different every time – it never gets boring or monotonous. Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of simply being curious about myself, how I lead people to their idea, insight or solution in each new project.

But also be ciritical with yourself, because stamina, a high frustration tolerance, a good resilience and passion are also required. Once an executive asked me “Benno – what makes a good innovation coach for you?” My answer was “By being curious and passionate, he always reads every PostITs notes that the participants of his workshop wrote!”

“Being an Innovation Coach means experiencing the great show with the mouse live every day!” Benno van Aerssen

Handwritten by Benno van Aerssen