What can enterprise educators learn from innovation coaching?

Written by Professor Marcus O'Dair

Innovation coaching is a relatively niche phenomenon. But one of the companies offering it is Strategyzer. Could it become as ubiquitous in enterprise education as the Business Model Canvas?

What is coaching?

‘Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. it is helping them learn rather than teaching them.’ To me, these words encapsulate coaching pretty well. So they should: they come from John Whitmore (2017: 12-13), the man who developed the highly influenced GROW coaching model and who played a huge role in developing the coaching industry in general.

While the terms ‘coaching’ and ‘mentoring’ are sometimes used interchangeably, there are differences in emphasis. Mentors tend to pass on advice, based on their own experiences. They give answers. Coaches, by contrast, ask questions. The idea is to help clients solve their own problems. Knowledge is co-created rather than handed down. Mentoring, I have suggested on my blog, is like learning from Mr Miyagi. Coaching, by contrast, is like learning from Socrates.

What has coaching got to do with enterprise education?
I first came across coaching in the context of enterprise education on a visit to Mondragon University in Bilbao, during which I discovered the Team Academy model of enterprise education. Team Academy in fact originated in Finland. And, thanks to Akatemia, I’ve since had the opportunity to see it in Jyväskylä and Tampere too. I’ve also seen how it has been adapted in the UK, for instance at University of the West of England and Aston University, where I am currently studying for a postgraduate certificate in team coaching.

Team Academy has influenced our approach to enterprise education at my university too, for instance the MA Fashion Entrepreneurship and Innovation at London College of Fashion, with its pedagogy (or heutagogy) of self-determined learning. In fact, the reason I was at Mondragon in the first place is ultimately down to colleagues including former EEUK director Dan Henderson, LCF’s Associate Dean for Enterprise. 

What is innovation coaching?

Innovation coaching – which, to be clear, is also offered by companies other than Strategyzer – is a particular kind of coaching.

I am not talking about coaches known for working in organisations associated with innovation, like Kim Scott, who has coached CEOs at Dropbox and the company then known as Twitter, or the late Bill Campbell, who coached at Google and Apple. While no doubt great coaches, Scott and Campbell are known for working more or less within the standard coaching model – the one kind I learned on my Postgraduate Certificate in executive coaching. This involves working with leaders to improve performance. (The John Whitmore book from which I take my opening quote is actually called Coaching for Performance.)

When I talk about innovation coaching, instead, I am talking about a form of team coaching that focuses on helping teams to generate and test ideas in order to develop new business models and value propositions. While traditional coaching seeks to improve the status quo, in other words, innovation coaching seeks to disrupt it.

Sounds good. How do I learn more?

One reason for the success of the business model canvas is that Alex Osterwalder and his collaborators are very good at visual communication. The canvas, for instance, broke down business models into nine blocks. And Strategyzer have done the same for innovation coaching, which they break into six stages. The first three – ideate, prototype, assess – relate to business design. The idea is to go through these first three stages quickly, perhaps in an hour or two, using tools such as the Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas. The second three stages – hypothesise, experiment, learn – relate to testing. The idea here is to articulate and then test your assumptions through experiment after experiment.

This all reminds me less of coaching than of Scrum, which shares methodologies like Agile and Lean an emphasis on iteration and adaptation. At the root of Scrum, for co-creator Jeff Sutherland (2019: 9), is this simple idea: ‘Whenever you start a project. why not regularly check in, see if what you’re doing is heading in the right direction, and if it’s actually what people want?’


I know from my time in the music and media industries that ideas don’t emerge fully formed from single individuals. They emerge collaboratively over time. What appeals to me about innovation coaching, as about Scrum, is that it embraces the messiness of the creative process. It provides a measure of structure to the process but without being too linear. You are not helping people to move from A to B to C but helping them loop around back to A again. To me, that’s what enterprise educators should be doing too. It doesn’t hurt, perhaps, that I work at a specialist art and design institution like University of the Arts London. But I think there’s something in innovation coaching for enterprise educators everywhere.

Marcus O’Dair is Professor (designate) of Innovation and the Creative Economy and Associate Dean of Knowledge Exchange at University of the Arts London (UAL).