The Coach As Design Thinker

Sharif Maghraby

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 university and had taken advanced 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 became much clearer during my ICF coach training in my weekly triads as I witnessed that first insight from a simple question that I asked my colleague: What stories do you tell yourself about yourself?

She fell silent for two full minutes, her eyes darting left and right and 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 decided to enroll in IDEO’s design thinking course, Leading For Creativity. From the onset, I was amazed at the similarities between HCD (human-centered design) and the mindset of a coach. I saw many parallels between these two great passions, so I decided to share some of these ideas here:

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 answer is, but we choose to dive in anyway. And we trust that the process of inspiration, ideation, and implementation (explore, discover, design, and deliver) 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, we definitely don’t have any answers (nor are we 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.

2. Our users have the answer to their 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, guide, mirror, provoke, and listen to them, and maybe 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 the IDEO 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 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 get inspired to discover more about their challenge. And as coaches, empathy is a crucial ingredient in our toolkit to project what is known as ‘coaching presence:’ 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 designing their own solutions.

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

The famous IDEO question, ‘how might we…?’, is a powerful catalyst for collaborative change. As coaches, we have some powerful questions that help our clients find the mental prowess required for a shift in their perspective or 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. Then we look at the desirability, viability, and feasibility of the initial challenge and start to filter and focus. 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 most 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 in the next session and 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 did or didn’t work. 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, and zest and show congruency in the way that we lead our own lives. We must be able to challenge toxicity and negativity in our coachees, teams, and environments.

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

Recently, I have also begun to incorporate tools from systemic coaching, like constellations, to get a visual and spatial representation about the team members views on a specific issue or challenge. I’ve also incorporated strengths from positive psychology to build a powerful, collaborative, and effective team.

It’s a fascinating and fulfilling journey that enables me to synthesize and assimilate tools from different modalities and frameworks to create a powerful methodology for enabling change.

And just like any good design thinker, I will continue to iterate and incorporate feedback to make it better.

For more on this topic, see “Design Thinking And Intelligent Technologies.”


Sharif Maghraby

About Sharif Maghraby

A globally certified Egyptian coach, keynote speaker and trainer specializing in the areas of design thinking, innovation and positive psychology. Sharif is currently Lead Innovation Coach at Winnovate (DXB). He is also recognized as a SME in the media industry with 25+ years of experience in broadcasting, content creation, digital media and music.