Coaching Innovation

To gain and maintain a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced business environment, companies need to continuously improve products, services, and processes. Innovation has become an indispensable strategy toward these improvements. An executive coach needs to encourage coachees to engage in innovative thinking to be successful. I will present three cases to illustrate the role of a coach in encouraging innovation.

Company X is a manufacturer of parts for a major industry. They sold a patented product through distributors and directly to original equipment manufacturers. Anticipating their main product coming off patent protection, they were concerned about a flood of knock-off products, particularly from China. The coaching challenge was to help the CEO of this company solve the dilemma of maintaining a culture of innovation within the company while at the same time producing its products in a low-cost manufacturing environment. As a result of several sessions addressing this dilemma, the CEO realized he needed to protect innovation from being perceived as an unnecessary financial burden to manufacturing. He formed a “pioneer” team of his most creative people and protected them with a separate budget. Manufacturing had its own budget with the mandate of creating a low-cost, efficient operation. This strategy of separating the Pioneer team from the Manufacturing team turned out to be successful. The company continued to develop new products, improve its existing products, and remain cost-competitive.

Company Y made an engineered product that was designed to meet new government regulations for its customer. A competitor developed a new product that not only met specifications but had some additional advantages that were missing in Company Y’s product. The competitor’s product was also less expensive. Company Y was given six months to come up with a product to match the competitor’s product or lose the customer’s business. This challenge was raised and processed in coaching. The company already had a well-defined innovation strategy, but the challenge presented by its customer required a different approach. It was determined that this challenge was a top priority. This meant putting other projects on hold and adding more resources to this one. The result was a new product that outperformed the competitor’s product. Company Y kept the business, albeit at a higher cost. It is now dedicating resources to reduce its manufacturing costs and thereby regain its profit margin.

Company Z is a large service company that was trying to reduce its escalating health care costs. The coach introduced the company CEO to an individual who specialized in innovative solutions to reduce health care costs. As a result, the company changed is health care plan to a consumer-driven health plan (CDHP), which combines a high-deductible insurance plan with a health savings account (HSA). The CDHP was just the beginning. The company also wanted to promote a healthier lifestyle for its workforce. Employees were given the opportunity to engage in health-related programs, rewarding participation with additional money placed into their HSA. Programs included a covered annual physical, weight-management classes, exercise classes, and nutritional guidance. These programs helped employees make healthy lifestyle choices that should lead to better health, fewer doctor visits, and a more productive workforce. In fact, Company Z experienced lower health care costs, reduced out-of-pocket costs for employees, and a healthier workforce.

The role of the coach in each of these cases was threefold: first, to maintain innovation as one of the key topics of the coaching dialogue; second, to examine the process of innovation; and, third, to stay focused on results. Given all of the demands made of executives, it is easy for them to lose track of innovation. Many executives will complain about problems rather than innovate for solutions. Keeping the coachee focused on innovation as a critical contributor to the success of the company is central to the role of the coach.

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