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Coaching the innovating organisation in a post-pandemic world

Making the 5Cs Real

Rebecca Collins and Keith Straughan

The authors of Coaching the innovating organisation in a post-pandemic world (Adapted from a paper presented at The University Forum for Human Resource Development Annual Conference, 2022 at Sheffield Hallam University, UK) have long-standing experience working as consultants and coaches with a broad range of clients, cross-sector and cross-scale who would position themselves as innovating organisations. This does not necessarily constrain them to be working at the leading edge of innovation in the narrow sense too often associated with the tech sectors but organisations who consider themselves to be agile and open to new practices in their service/product delivery, or in their modes of operation. The remarkable achievements of many organisations in navigating the pandemic and pivoting rapidly to previously unimagined ways of working often reinforces this ontological identification with innovation. However, it is our experience that this self-identification is not necessarily evidenced in practice.

Our experience, echoed anecdotally by many colleagues, is that even substantial consultancy and other interventions with such organisations do not necessarily deliver lasting, systemic impact, at variance with their self-belief. Such interventions often rub up against the fundamental assumption that the organisation already is inherently innovative and all that is required are mechanistic, process or structural changes to finesse this inherent capacity. It is our belief that a necessary prior step is required – the fundamental challenge of this ontological assumption.

Our experience leads us to suggest that coaching senior leaders is an effective intervention to deliver the critical mindset and system changes which can deliver fundamental impact in the innovation space.

In this thought piece, we examine the constraining beliefs and misunderstandings of innovation that often hinder organisational performance in innovation and explore coaching as a methodology that has relevance in affecting transformation. Illustrations will be provided by reference to our praxis with corporates, healthcare, local government, SMBs and non-profits.

The authors operate both as consultants and as coaches and observe that, even when operating as consultants, one of the most critical tools available to them is their coaching. From their professional practice, whether that is directly operating as a coach or as a consultant who coaches, the authors identify four key facets that require consideration when exploring the practice of coaching the innovating organisation post pandemic:

  • Leadership
  • Coaching
  • Innovation
  • Organisation

There is a broad range of research emerging regarding the impact of the global pandemic on how organisations approach their operations which, in many cases, led to greater flexibility, agility and innovation. Whilst it is evident that much of the innovation experienced during the pandemic related to digital solutions, the authors posit that many of the innovations cited by organisations are actually less about the implementation of technology, much of which was not innovative in and of itself, but that many of the true innovations lay in the change of mindset, risk appetite, willingness to embrace change, and reduction of command and control and micro-management that empowered staff and facilitated new ways of working.

The authors’ praxis currently indicates that the next challenge for leaders in organisations will be to undertake meaningful review and reflection of the innovations and directional changes implemented during the pandemic, whether these are technological or mindset, behavioural or risk-based, to evaluate which will enable delivery of their future success, and then embrace and embed the helpful and step away from the unhelpful.

Rebecca has been primarily operating as a consultant supporting organisations of different sizes and in both the public and private sectors through change processes. No matter the size of the client organisation, her findings are that there is currently a strong self-narrative of being an ‘innovative organisation’, being an ‘agile organisation’ or being both.

When working with organisations and leadership teams, there appear to be two opposing positions regarding the impact of the pandemic; one is that the changes in the organisation were a ‘means to an end in a crisis’ and that the organisation now needs to return, as much as it possibly can, to its previous ways of working, and the other is that the changes that took place during the pandemic are a catalyst to completely reinvent, the way their organisation does business. Whilst it may appear that the former position is the more challenging, in practice both can be problematic.

Leaders in the former position are often struggling with trusting their people or are strongly aligned to the traditions of their organisation. Examples of activity that has been witnessed by the authors include tasking the IT department to install keystroke monitoring to evidence how much time remote working staff members are spending at their computer or, in some cases, putting a blanket ban on all home working from the various dates that restrictions ended.

Clearly, leaders making such decisions are within their rights to do so and we also recognise that they see their decision as appropriate and correct for their organisations, but in both scenarios, there was an identifiable detrimental impact on staff engagement, motivation, productivity or the onward customer experience, because even when the staff preference is to return to the pre-pandemic ways of operating, this is not to say that the expectation customers, clients or service users of the organisation have not changed significantly.

Leaders in the latter position tend to be leaning toward the new world order, either due to a genuine desire to operate differently or because they have recognised that there is no return to pre-pandemic operations. But even here there can be challenges. Embracing the learning from the pandemic is admirable and, in many ways essential. However, staff no longer see the ‘burning platform’, they are fatigued by the change and, for many, these post-pandemic ways of working open new opportunities for work that may not be tied to a geographical location. If continuing with change is the strategic plan for a client organisation the onward embracing of change requires resilience and in many cases a mindset shift amongst staff. Here the authors have found that coaching of senior leaders has helped senior leaders explore their role and their staff needs through a different lens.

Whilst the authors’ involvement with these organisations occurred through the commissioning of a consultancy intervention, what they found was that in many cases it was individual or group coaching of the organisational leaders that enabled results. The consultancy process provided a series of recommendations through traditional qualitative and quantitative data gathering processes, the findings of which were shared with the client organisation via a report and a series of recommendations. However, the change was delivered through work with the leaders to explore their decision making, help them understand where and why trust had broken down, step into their staff members shoes, build their risk appetite and reduce their reluctance to embrace, at least some of, the recommendations made in the consultancy report.

Over the last couple of years, the authors have frequently joked with each other that at present many organisations seem to be adopting an approach of; “the answer is Agile, now what is the question?” By this they mean that so many organisations seem to think that embracing the learning from the last two years and becoming an ‘agile organisation’ are intrinsically linked. However, this is most definitely not the case. In many situations ‘agile’ is not remotely the correct solution for a client, although being more responsive in some or all parts of the organisation might be. Working with some very bureaucratic or hierarchical organisations and repeatedly hearing of ambition to move to agile working is, often incongruent and again it has been a coaching approach that has facilitated the challenge conversation with and subsequent reflection from clients regarding whether ‘agile’ is truly what is needed or what is currently fashionable or an idea that is partly misplaced but that everyone has become excited about.

In recent years, Keith has primarily been operating as a coach and innovation advisor. His coaching activities span CEOs of disruptive start-ups and series B and C scaleups, as well as C-suite and proximal executives at corporates heavily in the innovation space. In addition, he has acted as innovation advisor to national governments, public bodies, and private enterprise. Unsurprisingly, this praxis has had imposed a particularity of expression and intent during the height and periphery of the COVID pandemic when even non-disruptive enterprises were backed into a pivot – often by way of digital transformation – to endure the crisis.

Familiar themes remain present, but often in heightened, or indeed now in a mission-critical presentation. Timescales, though, were massively shrunk, even for the self-professed ‘agile’ organisation. Time contraction necessarily imposes additional stressors, which can feel like an order-of-magnitude distortion to business processes and the adaptability of key players.

The NESTA conception of the innovation landscape as being represented by four distinct but overlapping domains – technology space; intelligence space; solutions space; and talent space – is insightful. It will be no surprise to observe that most attention – and budget – in the innovation arena is devoted to the technology space (and to a lesser extent the intelligence and solution space) and precious little to the talent space. Herein lies the origin of many failures.

It is, therefore, to be expected, and certainly confirmed in practice, that the bulk of Keith’s innovation advisory work centres upon the intelligence and solutions spaces, while the overwhelming focus of his innovation coaching lies within the talent space and its nexus with the other three domains.

The distinction between a top team comprising a group of highly skilled individuals as opposed to a high-performing team is even more crucial than normal. Similarly, the tension between talent, competency, capacity, and fit within the role/team is more pronounced. These considerations are often very pronounced for disruptive young start-ups turned scaleups for whom this tension is incarnated in the realities of superb Founders who no longer are ‘fit-for-purpose’ in the transformed organisation, or at least not within their original leadership role.

It is our experience that coaching into these contexts becomes an especially valuable intervention to surface and respond to these challenges, both within the personal, team and organisational dimensions. Interpersonal dynamics, team cohesion, strengths enhancement, resilience, and VUCA responsiveness, inter alia feature actively. Perhaps more than anything paying attention to conceptions and manifestations of a growth mindset within a VUCA concept has proved especially valuable.  

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