Shifting innovation from OUTSIDE-IN to INSIDE-OUT. A coaching perspective by Fabio Salvadori

We live in a small and diverse world made of more than 7 billion human beings. The world population quadrupled in the 20th century, and it has doubled in the last 40 years. We are also more connected than ever. People, things and ideas move around the world with an ease never experienced before.

In his book “The Little Black Book of Innovation”, Scott Anthony defines innovation as something different that has impact.  In this small, dense and hyper-connected world where everything has a global impact and everything change at ludicrous speed, no surprises that innovation has become one of the biggest priorities for organizations.

The organizations that want to remain relevant had always made significant investments in innovation systems and process (for example, knowledge databases, market research, creative networks and design thinking). Unfortunately, researches show that the rates of return on investments in innovation are lowering.  As an example, a recent Deloitte study of the return on innovation for the Pharmaceutical industry shows that companies have seen a significant decline in sales (-50%) despite increases in R&D investment (+33%) between 2010 and 2015.

It looks like organizations are not keeping up with the speed of change of the world.

Guided by the belief that if you put the right people, with the right tools, in the right place at the right time, they will generate the ideas and sparkle the innovation process, organizations invested a lot of their efforts in three key areas:

  • Systems: through the creation of systems, structures, and network, organizations accelerate the information flow, the diffusion of knowledge across boundaries and enhance communication between all the relevant stakeholders such as universities, research labs, individual innovators and global libraries.
  • Methodologies: to exploit the potential of the systems, organizations, and experts created methodologies and tools such as brainstorming sessions, design thinking, agile projects, rapid prototyping.
  • Innovators: In this era of innovation heroes like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, organizations are competing to hire the best innovators and talents. They are acting on the belief that innovators are cut from a different cloth. Extensive studies have been conducted to identify the “Innovator’s DNA” and understand what makes innovators different from the rest.

However, in spite of all these efforts, innovation is not keeping up with the increasing complexity of the problems humanity is facing and companies are now seeking the next wave of thinking for accelerating growth.

We need to innovate how we innovate.

I have spent the last 15 years working in technological innovation organizations with different roles. What struck me, after being involved in different projects is that organizations always approach innovation from outside their people. They create systems to connect people, implement methodologies to guide their ideas and actions, and hire innovators to sparkle the whole process.

What if the next wave of innovation is not to be sought outside but within human beings?

From OUTSIDE-IN to INSIDE-OUT innovation.

What happens when the same systems and methodologies are used by human beings with a mindset of innovation? How can we shift from DOING innovation to BEING innovators? What would be the potential to innovate of an organization when everyone operates with the intent to create something different that has an impact? What if we start asking “who we choose to BE as innovators” instead of just “what we choose to DO to innovate“?

To innovate we need to be able to see what can be changed (inventiveness), understand the impact (customer orientation) and do the work (getting things done, self-leadership).

As perfectly illustrated by the picture above, all these factors are empowered by the level of awareness, the mindset and the attitude of the people that make the organization. When people liberate and engage their extraordinary human potential, they shift to a higher level of awareness. Their ability to see possibilities to change, to understand their impact and to do the work, thrives.

As coaches, we can play a vital role in the development of a new mindset for innovation in every organization.

Coaching to nurture Innovation.

The verb “to innovate” comes from the Latin and it means “to renew” or “to change”. It means to “bring in new things, alter established practices”. For innovation to happen, we must change the way we make decisions, do things differently, and make choices outside of the established norms.

There is no innovation without change.

As Dave Gray says in his book Liminal Thinking; “Change happens at the boundaries of things: the boundary between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the different, between the old way and the new way, the past and the future.

And who is more “liminal” than a coach. As coaches we thrive in the space between the known and the unknown, we partner with the clients in the change process, but we don’t do the work for them.

As coaches, we create and hold the space for the client to shift from the old way to a new way. Because change is a vital ingredient of innovation, then coaches can play a relevant role in innovating the way we innovate.

There are at least five ways in which a coach can support individuals and organizations in the development of their innovation potential.

Overcome limiting beliefs

The question is not what you look at, but what you see.—H. D. Thoreau

We all have beliefs. They are the ideas, thoughts, and assumptions that we perceive as truths. They are emotional and psychological and often irrational.

Most of them are unconscious, the Underlying Beliefs, and they are the results of experiences and interactions we went through in the course of our life. Our beliefs define our mental model, and they make it possible for us to think and relate to the world. They also determine how we perceive reality and in doing so, they narrow the range of possibilities that we can see. There are plenty of opportunities around us, all the time, but too often we are blind to them due to our limiting beliefs.

Through coaching, we can support the clients in becoming self-aware of their underlying beliefs and help them identify the ones that are limiting their possibilities.

The idea that only a few elected innovators are in charge of innovation is one of those limiting beliefs, and it leads us to the next point.

Unleash the creative potential

We all have in us the potential to be innovators. Thinks of when we were toddlers. Everything was new and unknown. We had to learn everything, to create and invent our solutions for every challenge because we can’t rely on our existing knowledge. Then, in our growth journey, most of us are taught that we are not creative. One of the most-watched TED talks is the one by Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 about how schools kill creativity.

In another famous TED talk, Dr. George Land explained how he and his team developed a test to help NASA to identify the best candidates to become astronauts. The experiment aimed to measure the creativity of the potential astronauts, and it was so simple that Dr. Land and his group decided to submit the test to 5 years old children to see how they perform. 98% of them passed the test.

They tested the same group at five-year intervals, and the results were surprising. Only 30% of those children passed the test when they were 10 years. Just 12% when they reached 15 years and only 2% once they became adults.

As coaches, we believe in the creative potential of our clients, and we partner with them to maximize this potential. In the end, it’s not possible to change the world without changing ourselves. Believing in the client’s ability to change and be creative is the first step to unleash her innovation potential.

Create trust

To challenge their limiting beliefs and open up to new possibilities, people must feel safe. And a safe space requires trust. As we know, “without trust, a human being’s unique capacity for learning and developing simply shuts down”.

Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client is one of the ICF core competencies of a coach. When we create a safe, supportive environment for our clients, magic happens. The clients will be able to take risks, to think outside the box, and build the confidence needed to take the initiative to change. And trust is contagious. Our clients will seek trusting relationships with others sparkling change and boosting the innovation processes.

Purpose and intent

“So a better definition for innovation would be “a novel solution to an important problem. But that leads to the question: Important to whom?”— Greg Satell

In our connected world, the potential impact of every action can quickly scale to global. The impact of innovation is defined by the importance of the problem it solves. Having a clear understanding of WHY we innovate is more important than ever.

Through coaching, we can help the clients in understanding their life purpose and values so they will be emotionally engaged in their innovation efforts.

Develop Emotional Intelligence

We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears, when in fact it actually happens between people. —Sandy Pentland

Nobody, not even the most gifted innovators, can face alone the challenges ahead of us. The current approach to innovation based on thinking is peaking. Only if we develop the ability to cooperate and create meaningful connections we can maximize our collective innovation potential. To do so, we must be able to explore the social system and make connections to create new opportunities.

Emotions are a vital and necessary part of this process.

As coaches, we can support our clients connect with their emotions constructively and use them to empower their actions. This will enable them to understand people’s hopes, dreams, and frustrations and create meaningful innovations.


If organizations want to remain relevant in the future, they must be able to make an impact in the world. And to create a significant change in our world, they must start from a corresponding shift in their culture and the mindset of their people. Who we choose to BE, as innovators, is as important as what we choose to DO to innovate.

Human Potential coaches can play a vital role in improving the innovation capabilities of every organization. With their support, individuals and teams can develop their self-awareness, connect with their higher purpose and unleash their full creative potential. Coaches can support their clients to ignite innovation with intent and emotions.