Flavors of intrapreneurship
In my work with intrapreneurs, ranging from defining the best kind of environment to work within (ecosystem) through to each individual troublemaker, there tends to be two ways to go: Covert Intrapreneurship or Sanctioned Intrapreneurship.
I accept that things are rarely black and white, but when I profile an organization to work with, it’s useful to know who likes to live below the radar and who flourishes better in a structured program.
Covert Intrapreneurs are everywhere
The covert intrapreneur is one of those people that cause a quiet exasperation as ‘normal’ employees focus on delivering their KPIs and no more than that – and they see this non-conformist employee not only just managing to ‘do their job’ but seem to be chasing projects outside of their job description.
These people, in their reviews, will be achieving the minimum but then seem distracted, working off-plan, over-stepping their boundaries. If only they would invest this energy into the targets set for them by their manager!
Now, when the covert intrapreneur succeeds in transforming an idea into something valuable (e.g. revenue), then all is forgiven (momentarily).
The issue is that intrapreneurs fail. A lot. And rightly so – the intrapreneur is pushing boundaries and seeking to develop ‘the different’ – something that gains market share, beats competitors, delights customers, motivates colleagues, makes money… hey, the remit of the intrapreneur (declared, or otherwise) is broad and is destined to fail along the way.
I have met with and interviewed covert intrapreneurs who have taken as long as three years to gain some general acceptance of what they are trying to do. It’s easy to do a quick search and trawl out details about Jobs, Edison, Gates, et al but intrapreneurship is an employee-led initiative (the ideas bubble up through the management strata to achieve executive prominence) and so it’s a question of employees accepting intrapreneurs as much as the managers and leaders should.
Covert intrapreneurs should be emulated
The covert intrapreneur does not have the necessary approval of senior management and so this means that their emotional intelligence and communication skills are of paramount importance. Add to this, they will be securing resources (including people) from outside of their direct area of responsibility (and, as they may well not be at a management grade, they cannot instruct people through hierarchy) and so they need to convey their enthusiasm for the intrapreneurial adventure – and to show people “what’s in it for you”.
Added to these soft skills would be the ability to partner, motivate and enthuse – laudable traits that help to develop a team culture that runs cross-department as well as cross-organization as the intrapreneur builds communities that go beyond the boundaries of the business.
There is no real right and wrong between being a covert intrapreneur or one within a sanctioned environment – the only wrong thing would be not to have any in the business at all.
Intrapreneurs break stuff
In a classic Rubik’s Cube, each of the six faces is covered by nine stickers to make up different solid colors. You can twist and turn the faces to mix up the colors and the aim is a simple one: for the puzzle to be solved, each face must consist of one color.
One of the ways to do the cube is simple – get a hammer, break it up into its component parts and rebuild it. But that doesn’t feel particularly satisfying does it?
Well the cube has over 40,000 ways to arrange the 8 corners – and over 200,000,000 ways to arrange the 12 edges. And the permutations to ‘do the cube’? A mere 43 quintillion (that’s 43 followed by 18 zeroes).
I remember first playing with the Cube back in 1980 – and I remember one guy in our class being able to get all the sides the right colors within ONE MINUTE…. ONE HANDED! Whilst, at the time, he garnered moderate plaudits from his schoolmates, I can confirm that being able to do a Rubik’s Cube one handed within 60 seconds is not a life skill that helps you in adult life unless you take part in one of the multi-million dollar cube competitions out there.
But what does the Cube teach us?
Well, for a start, it can be a complex thing – and, for most cases, you have to be prepared to make a small aspect (one side of the cube) temporarily worse for the sake of the big picture. That is where the first tricky thing happens – we have to be prepared to sacrifice our individual ‘ideal’ of having our own little world being safe (e.g. all nine pieces being the same color) in order to achieve the greater good (all six sides the right color).
The cube is a pretty good analogy for life: as infants, we are ‘complete’ – basically, fresh out of the box – no flaws, no failings, no prejudices, no fear – in fact we have none of the beliefs that inhibit us later in life. Life then messes the squares around – we develop problems physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Business is the same: we start with a blank sheet of paper and it is only over time that we introduce complexities (process, administration, organizational structure, bureaucracy, people with silos, politics and domains). Before we know it, we have an ‘organization’ where people are protecting their own side of the cube even if the rest of the business suffers along the way.
And this is where the intrapreneur comes in – someone willing to disrupt the colors as long as it delivers something new to the business. And let’s be honest, the intrapreneur will also be asking “why be cube-shaped? Why not spherical? Why not be e-based and not actually a physical entity at all?”
Now if you care to check on the internet, there are many methods and suggestions on how to complete the cube – much the same as there are many (MANY!) sites out there offering advice on how to get / keep a business on track. Whether it is the Rubik’s Cube or your business, you benefit from a structure and a process.
So, I guess, you need to know what your ‘cube’ looks like – what your people, process, systems, customers, objectives, reputation, etc. are doing and is there an imbalance as you focus too much on one thing and let other parts (‘sides’) fall away. In business, the six sides may well be 8, 10, 12 or more – and they are all vying to be ‘complete’ even if it does not achieve the bigger picture. Mathematically… there may be more than 43 quintillion ways to reach your ideal.
In business, 43 quintillion ways to get your business on track is not a problem when you are enjoying it.
When you first buy the cube from a store, the pieces are already in place – inviting you to play with it, mess it up, and have fun – is your business ‘fun’ at the moment?
There is a certain sense of achievement that comes from working the permutations and slowly creating your ideal whole: taking pleasure in following the process, sticking to the goals and seeing what transpires. Sometimes, you need someone with no vested interest in any of the sides as they don’t have the element of protectionism that blocks business success.