The Allure of Intrapreneurship

Originally appeared in Talent Management Magazine:

All talent professionals greet the annual Gallup Engagement figures with some interest and curiosity. Increasingly, though, I have noticed a little less engagement (pun intended) with the numbers in recent years. It seems that the issue is so big, complex, and intractable that it is easier to just be sadly aware of its existence, than it is to systematically address it.

One potential remedy that is receiving increased attention from both media and talent professionals is intrapreneurship: the art and science of individuals navigating organizations to create change, even without the benefit of formal authority. Recent innovations in organizational structure and management approaches are increasingly putting emphasis on the ability of individuals to influence irrespective of position. Equipping employees with the skills to influence these more organic organizational designs is important. Perhaps even more important, though, is equipping people in heavily matrixed organizations to be able to get things done – to avoid being paralyzed by organizational inertia.

We systematically teach MBA students and executives the skills to be able to lead change without formally having the title of “leader”. Many of the examples we use in teaching are of initiatives that represent “positive change” – such as building a more humane workplace, developing products that are beneficial for less advantaged populations, advancing practices and processes that are better for the environment, or creating a healthy relationship with the communities in which we work. However, the same approaches are effective in driving just about any initiative. Indeed, we find that the skills needed to create change from within organizations are remarkably similar to those used to create change in society at large.

. From studying social innovations over the last century, reviewing the relevant and multi-disciplinary academic literature of the last 40 years, and interviewing dozens of change agents working within companies large and small, and around the world, we’ve identified four main variables that influence the success of intrapreneurial initiatives:

Timing Matters

Just because an idea is perceived as a non-starter today, does not mean it will be greeted with the same negativity tomorrow. When IBM was considering new program ideas for its global corporate social responsibility function, the idea of a “Corporate Peace Corps” was mooted… and was virtually laughed out of the conference room. Fast forward a few months: Chairman Sam Palmisano published his thought leadership doctrine of “The Globally Integrated Enterprise”, and began searching for programs that embody this philosophy. The Corporate Service Corps was launched, and became wildly successful and popular at Big Blue and beyond. The program was listed as one of IBM’s best 100 innovations of its first 100 years, and has subsequently been replicated in many top companies.

It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know

Any large organization can be thought of as a complex network of formal and informal structures and relationships. The ability to understand the social terrain, and to navigate it effectively, is one of the key factors for successfully leading change from any seat in an organization. The characterization of “Mavens”, “Connectors”, and “Salespeople” as key players in the spread of ideas and epidemics, outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, actually holds up very well with regard to the academic research into network structures. This enables us to make sure to engage the right people, in the right sequence, to increase our chances of success in selling internally.

It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

A winning argument in Walmart may be doomed from the start in Whole Foods. We find that intrapreneurial superstars adapt the way their stories are told at two levels: master frame, which is tailored to the logics of the company culture and adaptation, where the intrapreneurs adapts the frame to the interests of a particular audience. For example, while overall concept will remain the same from conference room to conference room, the typical CFO will tend to have different hot buttons to the VP HR. The best intrapreneurs realize this and adjust their narrative and evidence accordingly.

Bring Friends

If the timing is right, the allies are in place, and the case fits the culture, then it is time to organize around the initiative. Typically, mobilizing allies can be done through utilizing the myriad existing structures in most organizations – such as town halls, brown bag lunches, intranets and so forth. Once momentum builds, we often see pilot initiatives preferred to fully-fledged efforts straight away (the exception being in projects that require high capital expenditure to get things started). The best intrapreneurs have mastered the art of building snowballs that often start small and unnoticed, but grow over time through the force of their own momentum.

The talent management fruits of enabling intrapreneurs are bountiful. Equipping people to time initiatives appropriately, line up supporters, make a resonant case, and mobilize allies could unlock a new level of performance and engagement in your organization.


Reimagining our workplaces

Originally at

Positive Business, Positive Results: An Open Invitation

The term ‘positive business’ refers to the application of this vision to the world of business — the belief that organizations can be reimagined to achieve extraordinary outcomes. Everyone has moments of greatness that stay with us for years, but why is it that those instances seem so fleeting?

Isn’t it possible to create a structure or apply processes that will allow us to have and celebrate more professional moments of greatness on a regular basis? Just think of the benefits this would not only bring to the individual workers, but also to the organization itself.

The term “positive business” refers to the application of this vision to the world of business — the belief that organizations can be reimagined to achieve extraordinary outcomes for shareholders, employees, communities and the environment. Many global businesses and innovative emerging companies have reimagined the way they organize and manage various aspects of their organizations, which entails everything from recruiting and workforce management to operations and legal to sales and marketing. These forward-thinking companies realize that, just like people, their organizations experience moments of greatness. These moments can be amplified in a virtuous cycle.

I invite you to envision positive business in your own organization and offer some ways to consider applying these practices across various functional areas and business processes.

An Invitation to Reimagine People Processes

Can you think of a particularly positive organization? Positive organizations, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Maybe you are picturing a larger company like Whole Foods Market Inc., renowned for the empowering practices it employs for its “team members” (workers are not called “employees” here). Maybe you are picturing a local, “small giant,” like Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. On a recent visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, President Barack Obama lauded the approach to management and leadership that has grown up at what Inc. magazine called the “coolest deli in America.”

What are some of the characteristics of these workplaces? Maybe it’s that leaders focus mostly on the things their people do well, rather than just correcting the things they do badly. Maybe it’s that employees connect a deep sense of meaning to their work. You probably came up with many other connotations in that mental exercise. The same thought process can be applied to the entire organization.

The industry standard recruiting process is to receive many résumés and cover letters, and then filter them to a candidate pool. Companies then conduct one or more rounds of interviews, and a reference and background check is conducted on the lucky candidates. Yet, as many of us know from painful experience, no matter how great a candidate seems through the interview process, we never really know how that person will work out in the job for weeks or even months.

By contrast, at companies like Menlo Innovations, which builds custom software, a large group is offered the chance to learn about the company through a paid trial. In multiple steps, people are paired with existing team members for a short, intense burst of collaborative work. Those who make the cut are paid to work as contractors on real projects for the company.

Beyond just technical skills, candidates Menlo are exploring whether they have a good cultural fit with each other. Eventually, once a candidate and team have had a chance to decide whether they choose each other, the new employee is selected. As Menlo’s CEO Richard Sheridan writes in his book “Joy, Inc.,” all of this is done in a way that is designed to create positive experiences for the candidates and do valuable work for the company, irrespective of whether a full-time job offer is ultimately forthcoming.

What about creating job descriptions? The industry standard is to describe in a long set of bullet points the responsibilities to be fulfilled in this role, as well as desired qualifications. While it is now almost 15 years since Gallup Inc.’s Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman showed the importance of managers adapting their approaches to each individual employeecorporate America (and the corporate world, in fact) has still not evolved past a one-size-fits-all approach to job descriptions.

A recent multiyear study, however, has shown that job crafting — processes for shaping one’s own role to align with personal values, interests and strengths — can facilitate a significant uptick in performance and engagement that remains over six months after the initial intervention.

As Brian Welle, Google Inc.’s people analytics director, said, “The job-crafting exercisehas enabled team members to more clearly define how their values, strengths and passions connect to what they do on a day-to-day basis. This insight has really helped people identify who they are and tap into what is most important to them at work, which has made a tremendous difference for us.”

This same approach can be extended to just about every organizational process, not just people development.

An Invitation to Reimagine Organizational Functions 

Another way to think of the corporation is as a collection of functions. Each of the functions can be considered individually as a way to take a closer look at how positive business practices play out in organizations.

As those of us who have undertaken a strict diet in our own lives know, lean living can be a stressful experience. Cue crankiness, fatigue, irritability — these are all symptoms that often have personal and systemic parallels in organizations put under stress.

Implementing lean production practices has been the industry standard for improving operations processes for over a generation now. The goals of reducing waste and variance in the system are systematically and rigorously pursued. Yet, implementing lean principles and practices can often be a draining experience for those involved. What if the approach to implementing lean were re-imagined to achieve its desired outcomes of reducing waste and variance, while not just maintaining the energy and engagement of those involved, but actually enhancing it?

Wallace Hopp, a business professor at the University of Michigan, has written extensively about how “managing the stress on the system” was one of the original tenets of lean production, but somehow got lost in the rush to reduce waste and variance. What adjustments might need to be made to make lean conducive to thriving, not just efficiency?

When we think of the law in organizations, we think mostly of risk mitigation, not value creation. To work optimally, though, the equation needs to be balanced.

“Efficient work systems can make jobs stressful, tedious and dehumanizing. They can also make jobs enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding,” Hopp said. “It all depends on how they are implemented. Positive lean achieves efficiency via work systems that energize and motivate workers, which in turn amplifies the productivity gains of traditional lean methods.”

Applying positivity can be effective in externally facing roles, too. Consider Sales: Procter & Gamble Co.’s chief customer officer, Bob Fregolle, has reoriented his $82 billion/year organization around principles of radical transparency, as well as relationship- and trust-building between his salespeople and their customers. The principles underlying Fregolle’s strategic bet are, on face value, consistent with research. In his book “Give and Take,” Adam Grant, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, cites research across a wide range of industries that shows openness and advice-seeking are much more persuasive in influencing scenarios, such as sales, than are pressuring tactics, flattery or trading favors.

But surely positive business cannot apply to support functions, right?


When we think of the law in organizations, we think mostly of risk mitigation, not value creation. To work optimally, though, the equation needs to be balanced. “Preventive law and positive law are two key elements in strategic planning. Unlike preventive law, which focuses on preventing or, at least, controlling legal risks, positive law emphasizes the value creation function of law,” explains George Siedel, a business professor at the University of Michigan. “In combination, these two elements offer businesses an opportunity to seize competitive advantage.”

We have seen the same principles apply to other functions — accounting, marketing, strategy and finance— to great effect. Is your department an exemplar of positive business?

Both organizational functions and their people processes can be reimagined in ways that are good for business and encourage people to thrive as human beings. No more of what Cascade Engineering founder and CEO Fred Keller calls “lazy thinking.” It is not good enough to just stop once you figure out how to meet the needs of just one stakeholder. Positive business requires you to keep going until you find integrative solutions that create great outcomes for all.

Positive business is an invitation to participate in creating something better for all. Change is not easy. Achieving this will require reimagining the functions and processes of organizations. Although referring mostly to product development, the late Steve Jobs famously said, “Everything around you was made up by people no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”

So, too, with organizations. You can change them and influence them, and you can build your own business that makes a positive difference in the world.

Chris White is the managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.


Behind the scenes of Joy, Inc: Ann Arbor’s Menlo Innovations

Rich Sheridan and James Goebel have built a software company on the philosophy that work and workplaces can and should be joyful. And a large part of that involves getting the technology out of the way of real human interaction.

Full video here!

Rich Sheridan’s delightful book, Joy, Inc., can be bought here.

positive emotions

Six Essential Ways to Build a Positive Organization

Excerpted from original article by Kathy Caprino at

When you look around your office, do you see a positive organization that fosters growth, expansion, and engagement, or the opposite?

Recently, I connected with Chris White, Managing Director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations, and Adjunct Faculty at the Ross School of Business, for his take on how we can create positive organizations that make the utmost of their human resources.

Chris shared his thoughts, based on research from the Center:

“There are abundant resources, talents, abilities and strengths within and around you in your organization, if you are attuned to them, and know how to bring them to the forefront. Too often these powerful resources are trapped within the rigid processes, structures and systems. These resources, if tapped, can lead to vibrant, energized people contributing at the highest levels in thriving workplaces. These are assets that can generate extraordinary performance, both individually and collectively — resources like commitment, creativity, inspiration, generosity, and integrity — authentic leadership at all levels of the organization. We call those workplaces that have learned to unlock these exceptional human resources “Positive Organizations.”

Research from The Center for Positive Organizations as well as its community of scholars at other top academic institutions around the world, tells us that in following an overarching approach of drawing on and nurturing key human resources, there are specific ways to harness the power of people that is currently trapped within the matrix. Doing so can ultimately build a truly positive, thriving organization.

Here are Chris’s suggestions for six ways to get started to build a positive organization:

Focus Behavior on the Do’s, Not Just the Don’ts

University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business Professor Kim Cameron, a leading researcher in organizational effectiveness, has convincingly linked “virtuousness” in organizations – the presence of attributes like generosity, forgiveness and compassion – to enterprise performance. Similarly, Ross Professor David Mayer, a researcher in field of social and ethical issues in organizations, is helping to grow awareness of Positive Ethics: understanding how to move cultures beyond preventing unethical behavior, toward the abundance of high-integrity actions. As a leader dedicated to building a positive organization, ask yourself, “How many of our corporate policies actually encourage virtuousness vs. only mitigate the risks of unethical behavior?”

Help People Connect Positive Meaning to Their Tasks and Projects

Did your team just spend the day “doing email” or were they actually engaged in something more important and meaningful that makes a profound difference in peoples’ lives?

Studies by social science Professor Adam Grant showed that telesales teams who were exposed to short, appreciative testimonials from the beneficiaries of their work before beginning their shifts performed markedly better than control groups who did not. The kicker: both groups used exactly the same scripts. The difference was all in the meaning and positive emotions that the callers took into their work. Illustrating how teams’ tasks and responsibilities actual make a difference in people’s lives can significantly improve their effectiveness.

Offer People Structured Freedom to Shape Their Own Roles

Research by Adam Grant, organizational behavior Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, and doctoral student Justin Berg shows that giving people a way to shape their own roles in line with their values, passions and strengths leads to measurably better engagement and performance. Google GOOG -2.51%’s People Analytics Director Brian Welle credits The Job Crafting Exercise™ in helping to build performance by helping his people identify who they are authentically and tap into what is most important to them at work. The exercise is designed to help employees make their job more engaging and fulfilling by looking at it in a new way — as a flexible set of building blocks rather than a fixed list of duties.

Find the Energy in Your Organization

Every organization has energizers—those who enliven others with their positive energy. Energizers are positive influencers, effective leaders, and value creators. They are ideal champions of organizational change and innovation. Ross Professor Wayne Baker maps energy networks in groups, teams, or organizations. His energy maps help to spot the organization’s energizers, including those who are in positions of formal authority or who are quiet energizers who don’t seek the limelight. These energizers often make excellent leaders of organizational change initiatives, yet are frequently overlooked when these teams are pulled together through traditional approaches.

Build Positive Self-Identities at Work

You may well know your strengths. But who are you when you are at your best? How would your closest friends, family and colleagues describe you when you’re at your best?

Often, by eliciting stories from others about when they have seen you at your best, you gain a more complete picture of your potential as a leader. How you see yourself profoundly impacts how you behave. The Reflected Best Self Exercise™ is one example of a personal development tool that enables people to identify their unique strengths and talents. Each participant requests positive feedback from significant people in his or her life and then synthesizes it into a cumulative portrait of his or her “best self.” People more aware of who they are when they are at their unique best, are more likely to be at their best more often.

Draw Strength from High Quality Connections

It only takes a moment to make a truly human connection, a connection that can generate good will, energy, and positive bonds.

We have dozens of opportunities to do so each day. These micro-moments are what positive organizational expert, Ross Professor Jane Dutton, calls High-Quality Connections, and what social psychologist Barbara Frederickson calls Positivity Resonance. For example, in the Center for Positive Organizations, they routinely start meetings by each sharing a recent piece of good news. Empirical evidence suggests that these moments of connection can lead to great benefits in happiness, creativity, and health.


An emphasis on building positivity and strengthening positive practices in organizations is not just a “nice to have,” empty leadership mantra, but a critical business imperative for leaders and managers who wish to ensure the long-term success, growth, stability and competitive advantage of their organizations.

Take a long, hard look at your organization and evaluate concretely its emphasis on positivity. What step can you take today as a leader to unlock the vast potential of your human resources?

(For more information, visit the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and its Center for Positive Organizations.)

(For more on accelerating individual career success and growth, visit and The Amazing Career Project.)


Navigating the Future, with Ford’s Futurist Sheryl Connelly

What are some of the biggest trends affecting the role and nature of business in the world? How can we track them and adapt along with them? At the 2014 Positive Business Conference, I hosted Sheryl Connelly – Chief Futurist at Ford Motor Company – for a funny and insightful conversation on these topics and much more.

Full video here!



Want To Be An Intrapreneur? Learn From Social Movements

Originally appeared at

In this post, Jerry Davis and Chris White from the Ross School of Business, explains the parallel between social movements and intrapreneurs.

It’s no surprise that Millennials, raised as digital natives in a world where social movements are pervasive, have brought a sensibility of social change to the workplace. Rather than checking their values at the door, they follow in the footsteps of a previous generation of tempered radicals—not as lone wolves, but as a movement seeking to make the corporate world more humane, more just, and more sustainable, from the inside out.

Through our class at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, we’ve met dozens of these social intrapreneurs who use the opportunities provided by corporate settings to create initiatives ranging from a corporate Peace Corps at IBM, to a fair trade marketplace at eBay, to an ambitious global human rights code at Ford, to a new store bringing healthy foods to an economically distressed city at Whole Foods.

Championing such a social innovation inside a company is a lot like leading a social movement such as the fight for American civil rights. The parallel might not seem obvious: How can the lonely innovator seeking to get his or her company to reduce its carbon footprint, or change HR practices to support different kinds of family commitments, be compared to those who led the civil rights movement or the Arab Spring?

1.) Innovation from below
The first parallel is that social innovations, like social movements, typically arise from below. Movement activists are those who lack conventional political power—that’s why they form disruptive movements in the first place. Similarly, innovations in companies typically arise from the trenches, not the C-suite.

Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why? . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Those who ask “Why not?” tend to be individuals who are not vested in the status quo, yet they are committed to the success of their companies —people that professors Debra Meyerson and Maureen Scully call “tempered radicals.”

In our interviews researching a book on social intrapreneurship, we found that these innovators were often recent MBAs who were at a fairly early career stage, but saw an opportunity to use the company’s resources to make a difference in the world.

2.) Opportunities, frames, and networks
The second parallel is that successful innovations, like movements, follow a regular pattern. Scholars of social movements have described several features of social movements and those who lead them that make them more or less successful. They include:

  • Being able to read the opportunity structure to identify the right time and place to launch a movement or initiative;
  • Framing the initiative using the right themes and stories to connect with the relevant audiences;
  • Mapping the social system (informally or formally, using tools of social network analysis) to locate potential allies, advocates, and roadblocks;
  • Mobilizing supporters using available tools.

3.) Technology changes everything
The final parallel is that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have radically changed how groups can be recruited and mobilized. From flash mobs to the contagion of national uprisings that comprised the Arab Spring, it is clear from recent events that the transaction costs for mobilizing groups have shifted, thanks to ICTs. There are countless new forms of group activity, online and off—what social movement scholar Charles Tilly would call the “repertoire of contention.”

Anyone who has used a Doodle poll to organize a meeting, Google+ Hangouts to convene the meeting, or Yammer to collaborate afterwards, understands how this can play out within a corporate setting. We are witnessing a massive change in how people inside and outside of companies collaborate, and this will inevitably lead to new forms of activism.

Jerry Davis is Management and Organizations Professor and Chris White is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) at University of Michigan.