When Kevin Thompson, Director, North America Marketing – IBM Commerce, Mobile and Social, proposed a corporate Peace Corps at the firm, he was nearly laughed out of the room. The idea of Big Blue giving free consulting services to nonprofits in low-income communities in distant countries seemed so countercultural. Yet now, the Corporate Service Corps (CSC) is beloved within IBM and broadly emulated elsewhere.
What can you do to make your company receptive to social innovations without chasing every new fad? We have found that successful intrapreneurs like Kevin Thompson follow a playbook with the following four parts:
1. When is the right time for change? Reading the organizational climate allows skilled intrapreneurs to know when to push their ideas and when to hold back. Thompson’s initiative connected closely with then-Chairman Sam Palmisano’s vision for IBM to become a globally integrated enterprise, and so was able to attract senior support.
2. Why is this a compelling change? The case that intrapreneurs make must resonate with the accepted norms in the organizational culture and be adapted for the myriad interests at play in any complex corporation. The CSC advances global talent development and market development objectives while giving support to those who could not possibly dream of engaging a top consulting firm on their projects.
3. Who will make this innovation possible? The best intrapreneurs identify not only the decision makers, but also the influence system around them. As well as the immediate decision makers, Thompson was able to engage a broad base of supporters throughout the company who each gave small amounts of their time to advance the initiative.
4. How can you mobilize supporters to collaborate on the initiative? Intrapreneurs choose online and offline tools and platforms that enable momentum to be gathered and sustained. In a geographically diffuse company like IBM, technology can help mobilize. Thompson’s blog on the CSC became the most widely read article on the company website that year.
As a leader, how can you open up to these innovators? Here are three things you can do:
- Be clear about your strategic priorities and open the door to involvement. It is not enough to have a good idea when influencing in large organizations. For an idea to catch hold in an organization, it also needs to be offered at the right time and in the right way. By making your strategic priorities clear, and your openness to new ideas and solutions, you catalyze new—and constructively directed—energy.
- Be clear about who is influential in making decisions and the timeframe and criteria for making them. The best intrapreneurs do not seek only to influence the ultimate decision maker, but also the system around him or her. By being clear and public about the process you will use for decision-making, you enable intrapreneurs to bring their important ideas and perspectives to the process.
- Give multiple vehicles for organizing. As anyone who has spent time in a complex system knows, grassroots organization often happens organically and chaotically. By offering platforms for employees to connect across functions, levels, business units and geographies, you increase the chances of intrapreneurs finding key collaborators.
Finally, as a leader you can seek to encourage and reward those who try break through the matrix, whether they are successful or not. By doing so, you will unlock energy and commitment throughout the organization. Underneath all that bureaucracy, you will find abundant ideas to change your company and change the world.
Chris White is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Gerald (Jerry) Davis is the Wilbur K. Pierpont Professor of Management at the Ross School of Business and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan. Together, they are authors of Changing Your Company From the Inside Out: A Guide For Social Intrapreneurs.