The Day of the Mavericks – the importance of intrapreneurship

As part of my notes on Melbourne’s recent Startup Week, I mentioned an interesting discussion on “innovation from within”, and the importance of intrapreneurship. There has been a steady stream of articles on the rise of intrapreneurship, an often overlooked skill set or resource that all organisations need to tap into, harness and deploy successfully. But what does it take to be an intrapreneur, and where can we find them?

Idea Machine - image sourced from Vocoli

Idea Machine – image sourced from Vocoli

The panel discussion on “Innovation from the inside out” was mostly about what leaders are doing to foster entrepreneurial-thinking from within their own organisations, featuring Janet Egber (NabLabs), Phil Harkness (EY), Martin Kennedy (GE) and Liza Noonan (CSIRO). Much of this effort revolves around connecting individual purpose with collective purpose (team, organisation, society). For example, at EY, there is a program to “promote purpose-led transformation, grounded in humanity and a call to action”, while GE also places importance on purpose. CSIRO, meanwhile, is clearly undergoing some huge transformational change of its own, with a key focus on “making the treasure chest of ideas happen.” (For a couple of related blogs, see here and here.)

When asked about how to incentivize intrapreneurship, and how to prioritise efforts, Liza Noonan was of the view that the “grass-roots” of the organisation “give us permission” to pursue particular projects. While Phil Harkness talked about the need to develop appropriate career paths, and the importance of change management engagement.

In my own experience, intrapreneurs are likely to display a healthy mix of the following characteristics:

Curiosity – This is critical. If you don’t display any interest in what is going on around you;  if you don’t think about how things could be done differently, better or more effectively; or if you don’t care about how things work, you are unlikely to discover anything new or uncover new business opportunities. This is not only about formal technical skills, this is also about personal outlook. It’s not intended to be disruptive, but maverick thinking is often what gets results.

Creativity – While I am not a big fan of formulaic management methodologies, I do see some value in certain aspects of the Six Hats model – of which Green for Creative Thinking is key here. As well as being a vital part of ideation and innovation, having a creative mindset (coupled with innate curiosity) is essential to problem solving – especially when it comes to “what if?” scenarios, and joining the dots between seemingly disparate data.

Commercial – Intrapreneurs don’t need to be financial wizards, or be the best sales people – but they need to be grounded in the commercial realities of how businesses work, how markets develop, what customers think, and what it takes to launch a new product or service. Being open and receptive to customer feedback is essential, along with an ability to manage solution sales and consultative selling.

Uncertainty – Being comfortable with uncertainty, and learning to be resilient, flexible and adaptive are essential to the intrapreneurial mindset. This may include a different approach to risk/reward models, as well as being able to look beyond the normal business plan cycle into the “unknown” of the future.

Scepticism – Having a healthy degree of doubt and not falling prey to over-optimism can help to manage expectations and enthusiasm built on irrational exuberance. We know most new ideas never get off the whiteboard (which is OK!), so the skill is to challenge everything until proven, but in a constructive, pro-active and collaborative way.

The key to intrapreneurship is being able to find your role or niche in the organisation, from where you can develop your expertise, establish your influence and build a foundation for solid outcomes. While at times it can feel a bit like “right person, right place, right time”, there are strategic steps you can take to manage your own career as an intraprenuer, including networking, self-directed learning, volunteering for new projects and taking responsibility for fixing things when they go wrong, even if they are outside your immediate responsibilities. It’s these sorts of behaviours that get noticed.

I know from personal experience that being curious and asking the right questions can lead to exciting new opportunities (in my case, six years in Hong Kong to establish a greenfield business). I also value the advice of a senior colleague soon after I joined an organisation: “You need to be part of the solution, not be part of the problem” when it comes to organisational change. And some of the best indirect feedback I ever received was from a colleague who introduced me to a new hire: “This is Rory, he’s our lateral thinker”.

Finally, it’s not always easy or comfortable to challenge the status quo from within (which is what a lot of intrapreneurship involves). Intrapreneurship can also feel lonely at times, which is why it’s vital to make the right connections and build sustainable relationships because, in army terms, you don’t want to get a reputation for being part of the “awkward squad”.

Next week: “Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

5 thoughts on “The Day of the Mavericks – the importance of intrapreneurship

  1. I would add another: Resilience.
    Successfully changing the rules whether from the inside or the outside requires a healthy ability to ignore naysayers and disregard their dire warnings of disaster and mayhem.
    While from the outside this is really hard, in my experience, intrapreneurs have the added burden of resisting the corporate status quo, and can be very risky for a corporate career. While the top dog is really the only one who can drive change, and often says the right words, what they see from the top of the mountain, and what really happens at the coal face are often quite different.

    • Thanks, Allen. I actually mention “Resilience” under “Uncertainty” – but perhaps you’re right, and it’s a specific trait all on its own. Talking of the view from the mountain top, I once worked for a visionary CEO, who talked about “perpetual revolution” within the business – not that he was a Trotskyite, but he believed that everyone in the organisation had to get comfortable with and embrace constant change. He himself was the catalyst for change – driving business process re-engineering (especially technology); introducing new risk/reward models; leading international expansion and acquisitions; revamping staff training; hiring for very different and highly intrapreneurial skills; plus enhancing market outreach and client engagement (emphasizing partnerships over transactions). It seemed chaotic and disruptive at the time, but it totally transformed the business. Of course, not everyone liked it, and not everyone coped or survived, but the outcomes were significant. He himself only lasted a few years in the role – his work done, he went on to drive revolution within another part of the industry.

      • Suspect many have had the experience of working for a change maker.
        Mine was a bit unfortunate.
        Somewhere the boss had probably read an article that encouraged continually breaking things as a way to build something stronger which tweaked his hyperactive imagination.
        Is perhaps OK in theory, but most of us were about three breakages behind trying to tidy up the mess he left.
        The company no longer exists, although the brand survives, somehow.

      • That’s a sobering experience…. sounds like either the Board or the Executive Team did not have their eye on the ball? As we know, culture, communication and alignment are key to any successful change programme.

      • The board was completely in the thrall of the MD, and the chairman was out of his depth.Governance was an issue that concerned me deeply at the time, and was a significant contributor to me leaving.

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