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The 'Coach' as 'Design Thinker'

By Sharif Maghraby (Creative Coaching Maestro at Winnovate)

When I first realized the true meaning and power of coaching – I was amazed at how little I knew about the art of asking powerful questions. Sure I had studied communication and psychology in school and had taken countless courses to further my skill-set as a change agent and trainer. But I hadn’t fully grasped the monumental shifts that we are capable of as human beings by simply asking the right question at the right time.

That all became very apparent during my ICF (International Coaching Federation) coach training.

We used to conduct weekly triads where we would alternate as coach, coachee and observer and I witnessed that first insight from a simple question that I asked my colleague: ‘What stories do you tell yourself about yourself….’ I asked.

She fell silent for 2 full minutes. Her eyes darting left and right. Her head spinning with possibilities as a sweat broke on her brow. She panicked. I held the space and stayed silent. And then she found her truth!

As someone who is also very passionate about creativity and innovation, I then decided to enroll in a design thinking course called ‘Leading For Creativity’. From the onset, I was amazed at the similarities between HCD (Human Centered Design) and the mindset of a coach and I saw many parallels between these 2 great disciplines:

1. We venture forth into the unknown ‘embracing ambiguity’ and trusting the process

One of the key mindsets of HCD is embracing ambiguity because when we begin any project we have no clue what the solution is but we choose to dive in anyway. And we trust that the process of inspiration, ideation and implementation will lead us through to a viable, feasible and desirable product or service. As coaches, we have the same relationship with our clients. When we begin any session or contract – we have no idea what will happen and we definitely don’t have any answers (we are not supposed to) and we always trust the process. We have faith, we follow the process, we dance in the moment and we accompany our clients on their great adventure into the unknown. In both cases, it is the process and the values that we uphold (like empathy, co-creation and iteration) that reveal the solutions to our challenges.

2. Our ‘users’ have the answer to the ‘challenge’

 In coaching, we approach the client with the mindset that they are whole and that they possess all the resources they need to break through their own challenges. We are there to support them, guide them, mirror them, provoke them, listen to them and may be even inspire them a little. In HCD, in the phase of inspiration it is a common basic truth that we must find out as much as possible about the desires of our users before we can begin the design process. There is even a specific exercise in our toolkit about deep interviewing skills, framing the challenge and asking ‘Who are we designing for?’ It’s very evident to me that shifting our focus on the needs and desires of our clients/users is a key requirement for success.

3. Empathy and discovery

 A vital characteristic in any successful HCD initiative is the ability to empathize with the user and to really get inspired and discover more about their challenge. And as coaches, empathy is a crucial ingredient in our toolkit to be able to project what is known as ‘coaching presence’, to be able to achieve meta-level listening and in some cases to be able to see what is not being shown and hear what is not being said. Empathy may be the most important meta-skill that we can develop as coaches and design thinkers. We work with our clients to discover their values, desires and the root of their motivation. In a way – we help them find their own insights to begin to design their own solutions.

4. How might we create amazing possibilities? How might we focus on what’s most relevant?

The famous design-thinking question ‘how might we…?’ is a powerful catalyst for collaborative change. And as coaches, we have some super powerful questions as well that help our clients find that mental prowess required for a shift in their perspective or for a change in paradigm. In HCD there is also a powerful concept called divergence and convergence where we allow and encourage creative brainstorming and accommodate the wild and crazy ideas. But then, we look at the desirability, viability and feasibility of the initial challenge and start to filter, focus and converge. As coaches, we allow our clients to ‘unpack’ and we listen with undivided attention. We ask them questions that drive their imaginations to create compelling visions of their future. They definitely diverge. But then we bring it back to reality. We agree on the specifics. We agree on action points. We facilitate accountability. At the end of the brainstorm, we agree on an idea to follow; something that will bring them closer to their goals.

5. Prototyping and the cycle of change

One of the really interesting aspects of HCD is the idea that is it a non-linear framework and that at any point in time we can move from inspiration, to ideation to implementation. We can get new feedback and reassess our solutions. And in coaching, once the client agrees on a specific course of action – they go out into the world and try it out. We also agree on a specific way to assess the success of this action. Questions like: ‘How will you know that you have succeeded?’ and ‘What’s will it feel like when you overcome this challenge?’ portray a similar approach to the prototyping phase. And of course, when we meet again in our next session and we discuss the week’s progress – it is normal to go back into the ‘unpacking’ phase or find out more about the root of why something worked – or why it didn’t. If the agreed upon action is giving the client the desired result, then they can proceed with confidence. The client is prototyping their own life and the coach is facilitating this design process.

6. Creative confidence and optimism

These two traits are very important in the mindset of any design thinker. The same applies to any coach. We must embody the values of positivity, hope, enthusiasm, zest and show congruency in the way that we lead our own lives.

The framework of HCD as a coaching tool for human capital development can be very powerful and the parallels are very evident in the approach towards progressive change.

At Winnovate, we are excited to be working with some amazing people and bridging together some cutting edge ideas from systems coaching, design thinking, business model innovation, positive psychology and other modalities to synthesize new approaches that will give organizations and individuals the confidence to innovate!

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