Lead innovation. It sounds so simple, but innovation means so many different things to so many people. Not to mention trying to ‘lead’ a creative process, to make something happen that is quite a creative and individual ‘thing’ requires a new kind of working together.

My role is now to find ways, as many ways as possible, to inspire innovation to happen for a large organisation that wants to find new routes to delight the customer, new paths that make the customer journey more efficient and new signposts that make us the best answer to some of the most complex problems on the high street today.

Be innovative even in your approach to the new role.

Advice passed to me by an old friend as I prepared to leave the role I loved in the NHS for the new role leading innovation in retail. And as she said it I felt my eyebrow raise, do we really know what it means to be the ‘glue’ for innovation, to become sticky (another phrase used by a mentor as I prepared for the role).

To lead innovation in any organisation will be a role with many concurrent fronts. The role is to create a process, a new environment, that enables innovation to happen. For me, that process focuses on people and the platforms to enable ideas to be tested quickly. It is also an assurance that the customer benefit is understood, evaluated and a plan created as to how the idea can be manifested in the business at a pace that brings a difference quickly.

But it’s more than that! In 2019 should we still need to be giving ‘permission’ to an organisation to change, to do things differently, to use that infamous start-up word, to pivot! The lead for innovation must find ways to enable the organisation to feel that they have been given permission to think differently. You have a good idea, good, let’s hear it, let’s test it, let’s understand first and foremost what does it do for our customer journey, what is better because of it!

The role of leading innovation is akin to a sporting coach. To be clear I love sport, I am rubbish at it, no hand-eye coordination ever happened in my evolution, in fact I think it got worse as time went on. I was the chap that was substituted off the team to run the line at Sunday league football, and then had to be subbed off the line too as I couldn’t see the other side of the pitch without my glasses (the shame!)

But, the new role I think is best described as Innovation Coach. How can I take the exceptional skills, knowledge, experience and vision that each and every team member brings to the pitch and enable them to shine today for tomorrow?

A football team with a coach can move from playing on the local ‘rec’ with jumpers for goals posts and nine and a half people per team to one that is destined for the Camp Nou (or Oakwell would be my dream!)

A coach has so many tools and so many strategies to hand. The wrong coach can utterly break a team, but the right coach can truly change the way a team delivers on its promise. When it comes to innovation the team is greater than the sum of its parts. Truly awesome ideas will be best tested by a plethora of experiences and if we are to put the customer journey at the centre of each ‘innovation crystal’ as it grows then we need as many perspectives on that journey as possible.

Watching ‘A Royal Team Talk’ programme this month reminded me of another reason why the coach analogy holds true to my new job and indeed will be the measure of its success. Gareth Southgate pointed out that a coach that knows his team because he has been part of the team and played on the pitch is an important part of his success in getting the most from his England squad. He wants to enable the team members to be team members that recognise the individual excellence that each player brings to the pitch. I think one of the things that I need to do in my new job is to keep remembering what it’s like to be on the frontline of digital transformation. Delivery and innovation is now the measure of my own personal success but I need to remember that the next new idea doesn’t always light up the world of the team that is trying to get the next release of product X live on time and to budget. Innovation has to be described in a way that it inspires the team to get behind it, creating personal ownership of the goal has to be one of the reasons for being when I try to coach innovation into (and out of) my organisation.

The tools that I need to call on as an ‘Innovation Coach’ are varied in how they need to be used but similar in the principles that they are trying to create for the organisation. The key tools I need to constantly refine, and use are;

Goal Setting – I need to be able to set our organisational goals for innovation by describing the change to the business we want to see. We have a core principle that innovation has to be inspired by a positive change to the customer journey in some way, asking the question of every idea, what does it do for the customer is akin to the healthcare drive for placing the patient at the centre of everything, something I have held as a dear principle for the last 20 years.

Active Listening – I think the role of a coach can only be successful by using ears and mouth in the right proportion, to be able to amplify the idea and create a culture of enthusiasm around each idea is a key skill for the coach to bring to the team. Looking and observing and knowing what to do with the information received also falls into this skill area and this will only be achieved through careful and considered organisational listening. Aristotle coined the terms logos, ethos and pathos; each is a different way to ‘react’ to a situation. Logos is logic, ethos is credibility and pathos is emotion. Lean thinking (and Lean communication) suggests the use of these three principles when communicating transformation activities and these can equally be applied by the innovation coach to how we speak to people and indeed whole teams about the idea stretch we are trying to inspire.

Build rapport and empathy – A skill that sits neatly with the concept of ‘player turned coach’ is the need and ability to build empathy with the whole organisation. A team rapport that sees innovation as a key to unlocking a transformation of the business is a big part of what needs to be delivered to ensure our transformation agenda can become simply what is done within the organisation and is no longer a forced behaviour. The creation of what I have described as ‘Wilful Disruption’ in my new role is achieved as an organisation with empathy for the customer journey and colleague rapport to get it right for the customer every time is ‘just the way it is’.

Curiosity – The ability not just to be curious about the answer as a coach but to inspire a new curiosity in the team is essential. Trying ideas, testing their impact and seeking views from a width of the customer base is essential to ensuring that innovation is built upon a new kind of creativity. The old management speaks that no question is too silly, nor idea too out-there needs to be fostered into a team that is truly curious. Being able to reach right into the customer base and discover what they value the most and what they perceive excellence from the service we offer to be will fuel curiosity still further.

Structure – The desire to create fluidity and enthusiasm for change is the role of the coach but for innovative outcomes to become part of the business we deliver requires structure; to thinking and to the organisational ‘makeup’. A defined route to create solutions that are live and enable ways that products built can mature from minimal viable products to business impacting transformational solutions is essential for the coach to see put in place. In my organisation now, we are building what is becoming known as the ‘innovation hopper’ a structure to ensure that transformation funnel is always full of the next innovation seed.

Feedback capability – Asking for and receiving feedback that enables a constant evaluation to occur is one of the ways a coach can ensure that learning becomes a route to innovation. I hope to develop an innovative style in my organisation, that takes from continuous service improvement principles within ITIL and enables innovation to be a constant journey. Innovation can be the ‘engine’ for transformation if coached in this way. The need and ability to check back and check in with teams that are on a transformation journey and to enable a change to be made to plans, to deliverables and to styles of working is important and can be established by the coach as another way to ensure innovation is embedded into the way it is.

Going from a game of nine and a half aside on the ‘rec’ with jumpers for goalposts to playing at Barcelona with VR and Gary Lineker and the team on commentary has to be the aspiration of a football team coach, all the tools to truly deliver at a successful, at an inspirational and entertaining level can be built through coaching.

As I really dive into the new role I want to be a coach and a team player, I want to take the team I am part of a player and coach to the next level using every skill I possibly can to secure the top-flight honours in our chosen game!