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Ideas are cheap, it’s a coach that business really needs

“We want to be innovative” is a catch cry of most Australian organisations. Little wonder. Australian companies are among the least proficient innovators in the OECD and seem to fail at creating the conditions…

Leaders need help to create the right conditions for innovation. Benzilla/Flickr

“We want to be innovative” is a catch cry of most Australian organisations.

Little wonder. Australian companies are among the least proficient innovators in the OECD and seem to fail at creating the conditions needed for innovation to flourish.

Peter Drucker’s famed comment, “Innovate or die” applies today as it ever did. The forecasted end (or slowing) of the resource boom coupled with comparatively high labour costs means Australian firms have to find new ways of competing.

To be clear, the term innovation refers not to a random moment of Eureka! insight. Rather, it refers to a constructive process where idea generation (creative thought), experimentation and trial-and-error learning are combined in a search for products or services that provide a competitive advantage. It is a highly complex, multifaceted process that draws on individual and collective inputs. It is, therefore, an innately social process and the “people factor” must be handled well if innovation is to result.

There are many reasons why innovation fails. According to innovation researchers, 64% of leaders fail to back innovation projects (due to risk aversion), 40% of projects fall over due to turf wars, and 35% of the time it is due to poor project implementation. Interestingly, a lack of ideas is not a common reason for innovation failure. So, if Australian businesses aren’t short on ideas, what’s stopping us?

From the top down

An obvious place to look is leadership. Given business leaders have the job of positioning organisations for success in a rapidly changing, competitive environment, innovation must be considered a core leadership or management responsibility. But the innovation process demands a lot of leaders. For instance, as it is intimately bound up with the strategy of an organisation, leaders need to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. They must be capable of embracing fresh thinking (often not their own) and the risk that comes with it, whilst steadfastly maintaining a customer focus. They must also be able to actively and systematically manage the process – from ideation to output – within an environment (culture) that values and supports such transformation and change.

The more you think about it, the more you realise the challenge is not about leaders being the wellspring of innovation themselves, but rather being the facilitator of conditions that enable innovation to occur. In essence this is a social challenge, and so the question becomes “how can leaders be assisted to provide the social supports needed for innovation?”

Business coaching is one viable option.

Business coaching is a structured form of collaboration designed to help business leaders and employees accomplish company or performance objectives. Whilst it can be used with individuals and/or teams, coaching seeks to surface human potential, including the latent creativity of individuals that is often stifled by work stress.

Recent postgraduate research conducted at Sydney Business School found business coaching plays a key role in innovation. In this study, survey respondents from 44 organisations reported that coaching not only supports the generation of learning and knowledge (that fuels current innovation), but also strongly contributes to the perception that a culture of innovation exists (that perpetuates future innovation). Findings like these suggest business coaching has an important role to play in innovation management. Whilst it could do this in several ways, two possibilities stand out.

Start with the individual, win the team

First, the collaborative nature of coaching is likely to enhance interpersonal trust and promote expansive thought and action within organisations. Studies of human emotion consistently show that fearful people think in a constrained way, with little creativity. The reverse is true of those who feel more secure and experience a range of positive emotions. As innovation relies on novel, “out of the box” thinking, a core task for business leaders would seem to be the creation of high trust, positive interpersonal climates that support novel thinking and encourage the sharing of unusual ideas.

Second, business coaching can help leaders understand the mechanics of team leadership and how to develop high functioning teams. The Australian Institute of Management and the University of Melbourne recently reported that leaders working in the top 25 percentile of innovative Australian organisations dedicate considerably more time to communicating with, and developing, their employees. Such managerial skills can be easily developed with education and training, and coaching can providing support to embed changes in behaviour.

Business coaching can also be supplemented by innovation training and mentoring to teach the core skills of creativity to anyone. However, as has already been pointed out, innovation is not about creativity per se, nor is ideation a major barrier to innovation success.

Learning to create processes that allow innovation to occur systemically and consistently over time requires concentrated support. In the same way that athletes enhance their performance through the assistance of a coach, a business leader also has the option of turning to the skills and experience of a business coach when seeking to address the issue of innovation performance.

_Sydney Business School at University of Wollongong is hosting the Australian Business Coaching Conference in Circular Quay, Sydney on Friday November 15, 2013.

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12 Comments sorted by

  1. Helen Hasan

    Associate Professor in Information Systems at University of Wollongong

    Gordon, i don't know a lot about business coaching but agree that "the challenge is not about leaders being the wellspring of innovation themselves, but rather being the facilitator of conditions that enable innovation to occur". Would be good to talk some time about coaching and other ways of creating the conditions for innovation even from the bottom up. It could be sage advice for universities as well.

    1. Gordon Spence

      Program Director, Masters of Business Coaching at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Helen Hasan

      Thanks Helen, happy to chat about this. We could talk about how coaching currently occurs both formally & informally within organisations &, indeed, can promote momentum from the bottom up. Btw, you might be interested to know that UOW does have internal coaches operating & has for a few years now.

  2. Marcus Clayton

    logged in via Facebook

    Risk aversion, advice from engineering consultants who want to cut and paste existing solutions, and if the project gets started, the "blame game" starts.
    Innovation cannot be project managed in the conventional way, and few project managers have the capacity or the authority to enable the desired outcome, because of the inevitable unknowns, and development required.

    1. Gordon Spence

      Program Director, Masters of Business Coaching at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Marcus Clayton

      Hi Marcus
      I agree, particularly with the statement "few project managers have the capacity or the authority to enable the desired outcome". From my perspective, whenever coaching is used as a part of the innovation process, it is greatly assisted by: 1) the presence of a person (the coach) who has some knowledge of that process (such that they can guide it), 2) enough objectivity or independence to be able to ask questions that those involved in the innovation process would not think to ask themselves (free of assumptions, self-limiting beliefs, etc), and 3) the ability to sit with the ambiguity and discomfort of people not knowing until such time as clarity begins to emerge. Of course, introducing "outsiders" is not a new idea for enhancing the quality of collective outputs, we merely wish to highlight that there is a discipline focused on improving this aspect of organisational life.

  3. Darryl Carlton

    Research Director APAC at Gartner, Inc

    this article reads like an advertisement for coaching and offers no evidence of performance gains made through external coaches. I would further opine that in "the good old days" it was the leaders job to coach their subordinates, and so it went down the chain. Why is there no innovation today? Two main reasons: (1) innovation is seen as risky and costly in a business world driven by quarterly returns and demands of institutional investors intent only on milking an enterprise of all its worth before liberating their funds and taking them elsewhere, and (2) innovation has shifted to the venture funded startup which, in most cases, are creating products and not companies and are therefore positioned for acquisition by corporates once the risk has been removed from the innovation. The cost of purchase based innovation is very high, and because the acquirers have no history of creation will almost certainly fail.

    1. Gordon Spence

      Program Director, Masters of Business Coaching at University of Wollongong

      In reply to Darryl Carlton

      Hi Darryl
      Intended as an awareness raiser not than an advertorial, but I guess I can see where you are coming from. Happy to work on a more empirical piece as a follow up.
      Couldn't agree more that coaching is a core task of leaders & many organisations are moving in that direction already (via ubiquitous manager-as-coach training programs). Oftentimes, however, these investments fail to catalyse innovation because (as you argue) of prevailing environmental/cultural forces that stymie healthy risk…

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  4. LP Hock


    Cut and paste is quite the norm by consultant or coach. As an ex-consultant in Marine Industry, typically, it is a setup lubricant for clients and also for project evaluation and financing. Coach should be strategically rather than tactical in assisting formulate decision. Sometime battles are lost for winning the war.

  5. Stephen Prowse

    Research Advisor

    I agree that this article reads like an advertisement for coaching; if only it was so easy!
    Innovation in Australia has some particular issues that add to the already complex process. Large companies are less willing to support innovation in Australia and many small companies do not have the funds, time or expertise and are working very hard to stay afloat. Yes, I know they need to innovate to stay afloat.
    Our R&D environment does not support innovation. It is not supported in Universities and Government takes a simplistic view, eg there is a view that if you locate researchers and companies in the same precinct, innovation will magically happen. The traditional view is that if a finding is important enough, innovation will just happen! This so far from reality.
    The processes of innovation are not well understood by many in Australia. Innovation is as much about cultural, behavioural and organisational change as it is about money, applied research and collaboration.

    1. Darryl Carlton

      Research Director APAC at Gartner, Inc

      In reply to Stephen Prowse

      the Cutler Report into innovation was very interesting (I know its old). It showed a massive gap between ideation and commercialisation. Australia is relatively strong at ideation and appalling at commercialisation. There are many factors - no incentive for share ownership in startups, a taxation system that demands tax payments before income is earned, investors shifting the entire burden of risk onto the entrepreneur, a small market, a public sector that does not buy from small local startups (and I have heard all the justifications, and they are all pathetic)

  6. Anna Zamecznik


    If innovation only happens when workers are comfortable in bringing ideas to the table then the lack of managers who truly understand the business they are managing may also have a bearing on lack of innovation. In my experience, managers who worked their way up in a business potentially have more of the requisite understanding of how a particular business operates, unlike managers who have completed a management qualification without having worked on the ground floor of the business they are managing, they also tend to have more respect from their workforce. It is very difficult to work for a manager you do not respect.

  7. Geoff Sharrock

    Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

    Gordon and Padraig, thanks for this article which makes excellent sense of an important topic. Could you post links to the various research reports you refer to along the way? I'd be interested in reading more about some of the themes you touch on here.

  8. Frank Pollard

    Adjunct Associate Professor leadership at Griffith University

    Thanks for the article Gordon and Padraig. It's an important topic and all discussion is helpful. I don't think that creativity and innovation needs to necessarily be about profit, bottom lines or anything commercial. A not-for-profit healthcare client of mine runs an annual innovation and excellence competition amongst its staff and some of the wonderful innovations that come out of that are about, amongst other things, better care and relationships with a range of people in the community. All just as innovative as a new app or product. Much of these innovations are created on shoe-string budgets or no budget at all. You are definitely on the money with your coaching theme. This organisation supports the spirit of innovation from the CEO down and, while there could be more done, there is a widespread support of the concept in all management areas.