The Allure of Intrapreneurship

The Allure of Intrapreneurship


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.

Originally appeared in Talent Management Magazine: