The Allure of the ‘Intrapreneur’

All talent professionals typically greet the annual Gallup Inc. engagement figures with some interest and curiosity. Increasingly, though, I have noticed a little less interest with the numbers in recent years.

It seems that the issue is so complex and intractable that it’s easier to just be sadly aware of its existence than it is to systematically address it.

One potential remedy is the idea of “intrapreneurship.” The term represents the idea that individuals can navigate organizations to create change without the benefit of formal authority.

Recent developments in management thinking are increasingly putting emphasis on individuals’ ability to influence irrespective of position. Equipping employees with the skills to influence more organic organizational designs is important. More important may be equipping people in heavily “matrixed” companies to be able to get things done and avoid being paralyzed by organizational inertia.

We at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan teach MBA students the skills 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 change. I find the skills needed to create organizational change are similar to those used to create change in society at large.

From studying social innovations over the past century, reviewing multidisciplinary academic literature of the past 40 years and interviewing dozens of change agents working within companies, there are four variables thatinfluence the success of intrapreneurial initiatives.

Timing matters: Just because an idea is perceived as a nonstarter doesn’t mean it will be greeted with the same negativity in the future. When IBM Corp. was considering new program ideas for its global corporate social responsibility function, the idea of a “Corporate Peace Corps” was practically laughed out of the conference room.

Fast-forward a few months: then-Chairman Sam Palmisano published his thought leadership doctrine — “The Globally Integrated Enterprise” — andbegan searching for programs that embody this philosophy. The Corporate Service Corps was eventually launched with notable success. The program was listed as one of IBM’s best 100 innovations of its first 100 years and has been replicated in other 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. The ability to understand and navigate the social terrain is one of the key factors for leading change from any seat in an organization.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it: I find intrapreneurial superstars adapt the way their stories are told at two levels. First, they “master frame” their message to fit with the logics of the company culture. They then adapt the message to the interests of a particular audience. Forinstance,a chief financial officer presents a message to a CEO differently than that executive might for anaudience of human resources professionals.

Bring friends: If the timing is right, the allies are in place and the case fits the culture, then it’s time to organize around the initiative. Typically, mobilizing allies can be done by using the existing structures — like town-hall meetings and brown-bag lunches. Once momentum builds, we often see pilot initiatives start to take off. The best intrapreneurs have mastered the art of building snowballs that often start small but grow over time through the force of their own momentum.

The benefits of enabling intrapreneurs can be bountiful. Equipping people to time initiatives appropriately, line up supporters, make a resonant case and mobilize allies may even be the missing link to lifting employee engagement to a level that’s a little more manageable.