How the coach can innovate

The third article in the five-part Masterclass series by Ashridge Consulting
argues that the coach raises self-awareness of an oranisation’s workings

One of the most interesting and fruitful areas of exploration in a coaching
relationship is the way people think about organisations. The way managers
think informs the way they act, so it is vital that any meaningful coaching
intervention should explore and challenge their basic – often unconscious –
assumptions. The vocabulary of management is riddled with expressions that reinforce
the view of organisations as machines. Notions of ‘steering’ the organisation
in a particular direction, ‘re-engineering’ processes and ‘fixing’ problems,
underpin thinking and approaches. These might be relevant in the running of
production lines, but generally the machine metaphor has limited value in
understanding how an organisation works and a manager’s role within it.

Social processes

Ashridge Consulting holds the view that organisations can be more usefully
thought of as ‘social processes’. Things happen through people interacting with
each other, whether by e-mail, in meetings, through face-to-face conversation
and so on.

If coaches raise managers’ awareness of how organisations really work,
managers will perceive more clearly how decisions form, how change emerges (or
fails to) and how they personally engage in the complex web of interactions.

The view of organisations as complex social processes gives rise to a more
enlightened view about how innovation is fostered, how their leadership role
and style might be developed and how real change occurs. The coach can then go
on to support them in these processes and develop their skills. The role of the
coach can be seen as fourfold for managers engaging in innovation, leadership
and change. He should be:

– Challenging

– Educating

– Supporting and holding

– Developing

By its very essence, true novelty takes us by surprise and into the unknown.
No matter how strongly people in an organisation recognise the need for
innovation, it is impossible to prescribe, copy or control it. How then, does
an organisation develop its capacity to innovate?

Complexity theory suggests that complex social processes organise themselves
into patterns without the need for any blueprint or external grand design. They
tend to generate repetitive patterns, thought of as cultural norms and
organisational rituals – and simultaneously generate novelty. However, study of
numerous organisations has demonstrated that increasing the flow of active
information, the level of diversity and connectivity and reduction of power
differentials, all increase the possibility of novelty.

Given Ashridge Consulting’s view of organisations as social processes, the
main currency in organisations is conversation or ‘communicative interaction’.
The degree to which an organisation can foster genuine innovation will depend
upon the conversational forms we create. If diversity can be brought into
conversations – by fostering communication across hierarchical lines and
between different departments, the possibility of innovation increases. Such
conversations will be more participative and lively when the anxiety induced by
the exercise of managerial power is reduced, or the monopoly of wisdom,
sometimes claimed by managers, is given up.

A coach needs to challenge any attempt to prescribe innovation, and
encourage managers to consider whether their organisational culture is
conducive to initiatives and experiments.

The coach can help a manager to foster conversation that will generate
innovative ideas, encouraging him to see how his use of power may be
inhibiting. Letting go may be uncomfortable but may also pleasantly surprise.
The manager will need to be supported while he lives with the paradox of
managing today’s performance while fostering innovation. His emotional
intelligence will need to be developed to be able to hold what may seem to be
conflicting tensions.


The traditional view of leadership arises from mythical stereotypes of the
hero leading the troops into glorious battle, or in the corporate context, the
charismatic leader rallying a flagging workforce around a grand vision. The
prospect is onerous and daunting. It is the role of the coach to challenge
these concepts and offer different perspectives about what a leader in the
business context might be.

If we believe, as we do, that organisations are continually evolving social
processes, we soon come to realise that the corporate leader participates in a
web of interactions, characterised by diverse needs and interests, amid emerging
themes and events. While a chief executive can influence these complex
interactions by his intentions and actions, he cannot control or predict
outcomes. On the one hand, the prospect of being in charge but not in control
can be worrying, but on the other, the realisation that the burden of
individual responsibility is a myth, can be liberating.

Having educated a leader in these alternative perspectives of leadership,
what can a coach offer to his client who heads up an organisation? It is
important to provide a holding and supporting relationship for the manager, who
may experience considerable anxiety as he realises that he can anticipate but
never know the future. He needs support to live with uncertainty, having the
courage to act decisively without any guarantee of outcomes. He will also
experience the tension between managing current performance and leading for the

The coach will also play an important role in the leader’s development –
particularly in his awareness of himself and the effects he has on others (in
other words, his emotional intelligence). The coach will help the leader think
through and learn to embody his own way of leadership, based on the person he
is, rather than to put on the mantle of his predecessor or any stereotypical

He will need help to think through how his own way of leadership will be
played out in the current organisational context. In interactions with others,
the leader will be helped to balance advocacy and enquiry – being able to state
clear intentions whilst being open to how others respond, and being prepared to
have them influenced by others. The coach will also encourage the leader to
understand the impact of his behaviour on others – by virtue of his perceived
power, the effects of his words and actions may be disproportionate.


It is no more possible to legislate for change than it is for innovation. If
the focus of a change initiative is restructuring and redesign of an
organisation, levels of commitment to change are likely to be low and the
initiative could be doomed from its outset. Redesign of organisational
structure entails shifts in patterns of interaction between people, and people
will naturally respond emotionally, usually with some anxiety.

Coaches will help leaders understand that change for the better is not
linear and programmable, but rather, emergent and unpredictable. They need to
educate them in this view of change and support them in relaxing their control
and working with a degree of uncertainty so that an organisation can respond

Good leaders do not try to protect from, or eliminate, uncertainty, but work
with people towards a shared and creative solution. Coaches can help them consider
the steps in the change process and anticipate scenarios. Through regular
meetings, valuable reflection can be planned that will enable real learning and
provide support. It is particularly leaders and managers who are addressing the
need for organisational change that in regular coaching sessions, will
appreciate the benefits of coaching outlined in the first article in this
Masterclass series, by Ina Smith.

On a role

The role of the coach in the organisational context can be
summarised as to:

Conventional views of organisations, as a machine, for example

                        – Concepts of stereotypical ‘hero’

                        – The view that innovation and
change can be planned and predicted

By sharing new perspectives of organisations and leadership

                        – About how innovation and change really

The concept of being in charge but not in control                    

                        – Managing the present while leading
for the future and managing innovation

                        – Balancing
advocacy with enquiry

The ability to hold tension and live       with

                        – The individual style and presence
of    the leader

                        – The ability to develop other
people and create a culture for innovation

                        – Awareness of impact on others

                        – The ability to reflect and learn

All these skills will be explored and
practiced in Ashridge Consulting’s forthcoming ‘Coaching for Consultants’
programme. Enquiries about the programme should be directed to Tracey Field on
01442 841106,

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