The Ultimate Guide to Building an Internal Innovation Coaching System

Digital technology, the accelerated pace of change, and the evolving relationship between businesses and their customers all have an effect on how organizations must operate in order to remain relevant in today’s shifting business landscape.

The fact is, companies must be more agile, understand their customers deeply, and make bold moves in order to survive.

At the heart of this transformation mindset is Lean Innovation. And when you think of innovation transformation, there are many pieces that need to come together.

You have your leaders who have identified the need for change and have set the overarching strategy that guides the transformation, and you have your practitioners who are being educated in new ways of thinking and who are actively learning and applying Lean Innovation techniques.

But, that’s not all there is to it.

You also need your internal champions for innovation - the coaches - to educate and guide teams on how to work in this new way, and the systems in place to support their continuous development.

These Champions act as the backbone when an organization decides to kick-start transformation and are a key component in order for the transformation to take hold and eventually scale across the organization.

What is the Role of an Innovation Coach?

There are two main functions of an innovation coach.

The first is to turn a talented group of people with diverse departmental backgrounds into a cross-functional, high-performance team that has embraced and internalized the 3 ‘s of Lean Innovation.

The second is to create and maintain channels of communication with sponsors of their team within the organization.

In many organizations, new ideas are not always adopted because they aren’t communicated to the right individuals in the right manner, which is why it’s also important for an innovation coach to guide these teams and sponsors through identifying those external communication channels.

The team and sponsor need to continuously remain aligned and it’s up to the coach to stay two steps ahead. The coach needs to act as that buffer between the sponsor and team, and facilitate those conversations to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

As the team uncovers a valuable finding or has generated enough evidence to pursue a new idea, the team and sponsor can get the buy-in and support they need to move the initiative forward.

Not only that, but large companies often contain systems, structures and processes that do not allow for bold action and often inhibit cross-department collaboration, so an innovation coach must be able to mentor the team by helping them to think beyond the realm of individual responsibility, outside of the organizational structure, and facilitate conversations among the people within the team in order to find a signal.

Mainly, innovation coaches are responsible for:

  • Supporting the growth of both the team and the individual

  • Reinforcing a team’s great behaviors

  • Empowering the team forward by breaking through objections and obstacles

  • Motivating the team to keep moving with pace

  • Educating on how to apply new techniques, processes, and tools

  • Assessing and challenging the team’s assumptions

  • Guiding teams on the methodologies needed to uncover the answers they are looking for  and accomplish more than they ever thought possible

When a coach is experiencing success, it means that the team has been empowered enough to run on their own.

The team has clarity on what needs to happen next.

They’ve identified and prioritized where there is still uncertainty and risk.

They know how to get their answers and understand not only what they need to learn and validate next, but what decision it will allow them to make on their path to discovering and creating new value for customers.  

What is an Internal Innovation Coaching System?

An internal innovation coaching system is the process of continuously identifying innovation champions within an organization, assessing and developing them, training them on lean innovation techniques, matching them to the right projects, measuring how much work each coach is performing, and calculating their effectiveness at being able to guide their teams to a level of high performance.

It is important to figure out how you are going to identify and grow the strengths of new coaches as they come in, which is why successful innovation coaching systems also have a plan for coach development in place.

In this way, coaches are able to level up their skills which allows them to take on more complex projects, which ultimately increases an organization’s likelihood of successfully integrating innovation systems to create value at scale.

It is also imperative that the effectiveness of a coaching system be tracked and measured using pre-defined key metrics. Knowing if your coaches are performing effectively allows you to iterate on the system or identify areas of weakness.

Why Build an Internal Innovation Coaching System?

One of the key elements in experiencing a successful innovation transformation is having a strong in-house capability.

When you have teams and individuals inside the organization who have not been educated on the Lean Innovation process, internal resources can easily demonstrate the new ways of thinking and teach those groups how to work in this new manner.

And once those groups have been taught the new methodologies, they can turn around and teach those principles to even more people within the organization.

In this situation, the students become the teachers very quickly, which allows the transformation spread rapidly.  

Without that internal system, you are relying on outside coaches to come in and offer training and support, which can be a good way to get transformation started, but is not practical as a long-term solution for a large organization.

Having the innovation coaching system as an internal function allows the organization to own the transformation and it has a much greater effect because when the people within the organization are empowered in this new way of thinking, the company as a whole is able to realize vision of growth and benefit from the system of continuous innovation that has been installed.

How to Build and Internal Coaching System

The coaching loop goes like this: Identify, Train, Assess, Do, Co-Development Plan, Structured Observation and Retrospective.

Identifying the Right People

The first step to building an internal coaching system is to identify individuals who would potentially make great innovation champions.

The fact is, innovation can happen anywhere, but not everyone is an innovator.

There are those who have an entrepreneurial mindset but haven’t been given the opportunity to show it, and others who may already be acting entrepreneurially in a more obvious fashion.

Managers need to be able to recognize these individuals that think a little bit differently (employees who are ready to ask the right questions and willing to see that the customer should be at the heart of everything they do) and make sure those people get the opportunity to go through the training.

Another way to identify potential innovation champions is to hold an open call bootcamp or sprint. In this situation, people who are interested and believe they have what it takes can volunteer to participate.

It is through an open call experience where you can begin to recognize which participants are rising to the occasion and embracing the lean innovation mindset. These people understand the methodology and you can see immediately how these behaviors play out.

Initial Training and Sprints

Once the correct people have been identified, they are taken through an initial training. In this training they will learn the basics of lean innovation and the reasoning behind innovation coaching.

Directly following the initial training, participants coach an actual sprint. This experience allows them to put everything they learned in the initial training into practice. During the sprint, they receive real-time feedback which expedites their learning.

This quick turnaround is very powerful because it’s this rapid succession from learning to teaching that allows the coaching system to take hold.

Assessing the Coach

Coaches require a specific set of criteria to effectively measure their performance. Though the steps go in sequence, it is a continuous loop for each individual coach so they can continuously grow.

Step 1: Assess.

You need to assess areas of strength, areas for growth, skill and experience of the coach. It comes from self-assessment and other perspectives to get a rounded view of any given coach.

Step 2: Development Plan.

Co-develop plans including missions for growth. The plan continues to iterate as new opportunities arise from the assessments to missions to structured observations to retrospectives.

Step 3: Time for Structured Observation.

Make time to observe their development in the field, and observe coaching behaviors first-hand.

Step 4: Review the Results.

Review the results with a retrospective of what could allow the coach to be even more effective going forward and then go back to the beginning and start the process over again with the initial assessment.

Continual Training for Coaches

Having a clearly defined system for continuous training allows coaches to level up and master both their IQ and EQ skills (more on that in a bit).

When developing these trainings, it’s important that they are structured in a way that is outcome-driven, immersive, concentrated on achieving impact, and measurable. In that way, coaches can learn by doing, and it is clear what success looks like.

After a coach has completed a round of training, they go back out into the field, and you can start the process again.


What Makes a Great Innovation Coach

People who demonstrate a strong understanding and expertise of Lean Innovation principles have the necessary IQ to be candidates for coaching positions.

But, they also need to have solid emotional intelligence (EQ) in order to become a great coach.

It’s the understanding and expertise in coaching the dynamics of a team.

6 Great Behaviors of a Coach

  • Self-awareness deep understands of self and how they show up impacts the team.

  • Ability to build rapport with a team.

  • Ability to move a team forward, even when the team gets stuck.

  • Able to provide concise, actionable, and neutral feedback to a team that is tied back to  goals.

  • Supports other coaches for the growth of a coaching system.

  • Knows how to use storytelling as a device to help team members relate to a situation or experience, and to drive insight into problem solving.

It takes this powerful combination of IQ and EQ for a coach to be able to guide a team toward accomplishing more than they ever thought possible.


Understanding The Health of Your Coaching Bench

There are a number of ways to gauge the skill level of a particular coach.

You can assess their strengths, skills, both IQ and EQ, and their individual opportunities for growth.

You can also use metrics like:

  • Maximum utilization rate (how many projects and teams they can manage at a time before being unable to support new teams),

  • Average time spent to bring a team to a high-performing level, and

  • Rate of achieving the expected outcome for a project (how often the coach was able to guide the team to an answer and drive business impact, by either discovering and creating new customer value with a new product or service, or getting enough market evidence to stop a project that would not succeed.)

This information allows an organization to decide which projects should be assigned to which coaches and helps them to identify experience gaps in the coaching bench.

Biggest Challenges Facing Organizations When Building an Internal Coaching Bench

Launching a system in order to support an organizational shift of this magnitude is no small feat. Innovation transformation does not happen overnight - it takes commitment, resources, and a true desire to change.

Here are some of the main challenges that organizations face when trying to implement an internal coaching system.

Resource Allocation

If you are any level of leader working within an organization, you already know the problem of resource allocation. In order for a full-time innovation teams to be successful, they need to have a full-time innovation coaches.

This can be a challenge because some companies do not feel they have the bandwidth to dedicate a full-time coach when they’ve got other work and priorities.

Without a full-time coaches to work with a variety of teams guiding them toward driving business impact, the system breaks down.

To avoid this situation, do not place part-time coaches with full-time teams. Be sure to properly plan enough resources to get the job done before deciding to grow an internal coaching system.

Gaps in Skill

When a company first starts out with a program like this, many coaches are not experienced enough to take on certain types of projects.

For example, let’s say you have a project around ideation. The question would be “can this team within 90 days get to a working MVP.”

All of the coaches on this team have the skill and ability to do this because they’ve had previous experience working on a similar project.

But let’s say a different project comes in: the team has a signal, they’ve validated quite a few of the riskiest assumptions, so they know how to create a satisfied customer, they just don’t know how to create the “passionate” customer which will be the team’s growth engine.

In this example organization, no coach has ever had to go from “idea” all the way to growing a single market.

This signifies a gap in the bench.

When coaches are limited on experience and tackling a problem outside of their comfort zone, they might revert to what they know instead of using past experience to guide the team, which might prevent them from identifying patterns and moving the team forward effectively.

However, as the coaching system grows in experience and numbers, gaps in the bench can be identified and filled as long as the proper tracking and measuring behaviors have been instilled.

5 Tips for Organizations Looking to Build an Internal Innovation Coaching System

Despite the challenges, there’s a reason why leaders decide to undergo innovation transformation. It’s about understanding what the future looks, and figuring out how to get there.

Launching an internal innovation coaching strategy is one way to kick-start organizational transformation, but it has to be aligned with the goals of the company.

Here are 5 tips to help you grow and scale an effective coaching system:

  • Think about how you are going to identify, assess, train, and co- develop your innovation champions and consider how much space you can afford to give them in order to be able to work with these teams.

  • Create a way to measure the strength of your bench and a process for identifying and eliminating areas of weakness.

  • Have a clear understanding of how to match your coaches with the projects that are coming in.

  • Be sure to communicate what is expected for any coach who wants to go through this program.

  • Identifying the right people, being able to train them, matching them with skill appropriate projects, monitoring their utilization, and identifying gaps in the system are the keys to having a successful internal coaching system. It is important that these students can become the teachers in order for this bigger view to take hold.

Final Thoughts

As you take that first step toward transformation, remember it’s your Champions that are the backbone of this effort.

Having an internal innovation coaching system will allow you to scale lean innovation skills, develop a new mindset, and ignite entrepreneurial action that spreads through the organization like wildfire.

And even though there is consistent effort that is required to be successful, once the systems have been put in place and the shift begins to take hold, you will start to realize your vision for growth and reap the benefits of continuous innovation.

For more information on how we can help you set up your own internal innovation coaching system, download our Innovation Champions program brochure.