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The Secret to Innovation: Intrapreneurs

If you are reading this, you are probably an intrapreneur and/or you want your employees to be more intrapreneurial.

  • Are you a strategic thinker that is more activated to work on a long term vision versus short term tasks? Perhaps you are more often in trouble rather than celebrated because the motivation tactics, systems, and process’ in place do not support you.
  • Do you have a growth mindset where you are continuously learning and always looking for ways to innovate and adapt to changes?
  • Are you a resilient change maker and risk taker that identifies opportunity and acts on it?
  • Do you empathize with the customer and do whatever it takes to support them, holding your team accountable along the way?
  • Do you enroll stakeholders across silos (or teams) to drive something forward, creating and orienting towards outcomes?

If any of this resonates, you are an intrapreneur! Put simply, an intrapreneur sees the signals of opportunity and takes meaningful actions towards that change, no matter where they sit in the hierarchy.

The difference between an employee and an intrapreneur is an employee has a job description and an intrapreneur has a purpose.

Purpose = Meaning + Impact

In a previous blog, “Why Purpose is Crucial for Intrapreneurship” purpose is explained as the “why” behind any endeavor. The “why” is our deep personal and emotional connection (meaning) which creates intrinsic motivation. Purpose expands our realm of possibility and consequently facilitates continuous growth (impact). Like the book, An Everybody Culture, states, an organization and/or culture is either continuously evolving, or it’s not. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations confuse efficiency gains for evolution and they become stuck, focusing on the wrong problems.

The Problem — We Are Stuck

Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, explains the terms “System 1” and “System 2” to describe our reactive and intuitive, limbic brain and our rational, neocortex brain- both are very important for specific times in our development and specific situations. Similarly, organizations go through phases where System 1 and System 2 are supporting its growth.

*When companies are first starting out, System 1 is in charge, reacting to opportunity with minimal systems in place and all hands are on deck to steer the ship forward.

As the company grows, System 2 joins, adding role clarity and defining processes to increase efficiency and repeatability around opportunity. This is where we first start to see silos at play which are necessary at the time and are effectively reducing collaboration.

As leadership continues to enforce system discipline, companies become less reactive and reliable outcomes follow. Yet, when we integrate leadership, individual contributors rely on the people above them to direct, losing the capacity and agency to act on opportunity. (According to Social Science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices).

Most companies that are not in classic growth stages are often stuck in the “System Integration” phase (above) — this is where our employees have a more strategic mindset, utilizing metrics to collect feedback and make decisions. The metrics help reduce silos because now we are working towards communal objectives. Companies get stuck here because they are continuing to lean into efficiency tactics to evolve, continuing to throw systems and tools at the problem.

In order for a company to truly be a continuously evolving system, it must activate its people to be more strategic thinkers who are continuously learning, ie. become and act as intrapreneurs. Intrapreneurs lean into the processes while continuously evolving the process, operating from a place of agency.

The gap to the final step of organizational evolution is not the process, it’s the people.

People as Growth Opportunities

A continuously evolving organization is an organization that can mitigate risk anywhere, identify opportunities anywhere and support the customer from all teams. Yet we have optimized organizations so much that we have no room for continuous evolution or innovation. It makes sense to optimize the sale of a product at a certain stage of development, consider 90’s boomer companies like Intel, for example. Intel seriously benefited from creating rigid roles and over-specified processes to easily replicate and scale. But when they plateaued and realized the path towards customer centricity and innovation was within their people, they made a huge business initiative towards investing in their own staff and changed their world of work.

We have so much data that supports the ROI of investing in your people. Specifically, Gallup, for example, found that “opportunities to learn and grow” is one of the top three factors in retaining millennials. The most successful companies and the ones that actually stick around are the ones listening to this data and taking action towards employee development.

Solution — Creating a Culture of Ownership

Autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward are the three qualities of satisfying work according to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. Adversely, treating people like cogs in a machine does not create satisfied humans and in turn, it does not create a continuously evolving organization.

To evolve, give people back their agency and capacity to take action from where they’re at: create an ownership culture. An ownership culture is a culture where people have an awareness of their mindsets, take responsibility for their behaviors and ultimately take ownership of their outcomes.

Mindset is a set of attitudes or fixed ideas. It determines our fundamental filters and how we view the world. It also determines our expectations and our story about the “way things are”. Building awareness of mindset exposes how our mindset affects everything and can be leveraged in more productive ways. Behaviors are the way in which a person responds to a particular situation or stimulus. Behaviors are generally patterned and repetitive. An example of common mindsets on teams is the need to be right vs. the willingness to be curious when a problem arises. Responsive behaviors could look like looking at who to blame (reacting) or getting curious and considering how we all played a role in the outcome (responsibility). One mindset leads to a lack of psychological safety and the other creates an opportunity for growth. Once we have created an ownership culture, we must create a pathway for innovation to be evaluated, derisked and implemented.

Call to Action

Making change is challenging for individuals, and for companies it’s even harder. It does happen and it is possible. You do have the power to influence your environment and create change at your organization. So ask yourself, what change needs to be made at your company that you haven’t yet acted on? Do you see a way to better serve your client? Do you see ways you can integrate a new technology? What other markets should your company be touching? You do not need to fall victim to “the way we’ve always done things”. Remember, you are creator.


*Based on the CMMI model and the work of Neuropower Group.

Sarah Howard has a passion for human transformation and healthy workplace cultures and holds an optimistic vision for the future. She helps spread LUMAN’s mission as their Sales Driver and Co-Facilitator. LUMAN is a strategy firm that puts on intrapreneurship programs- helping companies derisk intrapreneurial initiatives with a focus on operations, sales, and culture. Get in touch to see what a program could look like for your company here: sarah@luman.io. Programs available for all growth stages and can focus on exceeding a certain goal &/or achieving breakthrough innovation.

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