Intrapreneurs: How System-Changers Think, Design and Act

In•tra•pre•neur•ship (n) 1. Successful adaptation of entrepreneurial attitudes and strategies inside of a bureaucratic organization. 2. Implementation of start-up practices within a large organization, producing valued innovation.

Intrapreneurs are institutional entrepreneurs. Their approach to problem solving is innovative and collaborative. They are game-changers, who seek to deploy change through consensus-building. Gifford Pinchot said that intrapreneurs are dreamers who do. They are the people who take hands-on responsibility for creating innovation of any kind within an organization as they work purposefully.

We believe that intrapreneurs represent the future of public service.

The role of the public servant is changing in the 21st century. Increasingly, the public service has been shifting towards a more citizen-centered and accountable format. While dealing with ongoing challenges posed by a smaller workforce and limited budgets, the public service is now more than ever having to address problems that are complex and sticky, which requires an unprecedented level of cooperation, collaboration and innovation if there is any hope for success. We believe that by empowering the intrapreneurial way of thinking, we would be able to mobilize considerable human capital along with the underutilized resources that are embedded at all levels of public administration.

By definition, innovation requires change. Intrapreneurs see change as a necessity when it comes to their approach. They often bring a tempered approach to designing for change because intrapreneurs act based on a set of needs. They want the organization of which they are part of to be better, and they want to see that the organizational mission and processes are reflective of the organization’s deep seated values and vision. The intrapreneurial focus revolves around a deeply collaborative and multilateral set of activities.

They will encourage organizational-wide involvement by insisting on truth and honesty about what’s working, what’s not, and why. In the process, they will catalyze creativity and seek new ways to do business. Key ways of doing so will include empowering, enabling and encouraging others within the organization, focusing on building networks, and rewarding and showcasing intrapreneurial thinking in others.

If you asked us to lay down a few points to describe what intrapreneurship is all about for us, our response would be based on these following assumptions:

  1. We HAVE an abundance of potential and creativity alive yet locked in the public service.
  2. We BELIEVE that government can deliver on innovative products and services.
  3. We KNOW we can do a better job of tapping into collective intelligence across government.
  4. Intrapreneurship is NOT about undermining direction nor the rules of our institutions – effective change agents operate within the system – it is about creating the processes and vehicles to enable robust policies and improve outcomes through building a collaborative culture.
  5. We MUST challenge our own perceptions of how change happens – it happens small and within our own spheres of influence.
  6. Innovation IS happening all the time, all around us – we need to get better at how we discover, share and celebrate ingenuity at all levels!

Ultimately, though, we can say that intrapreneurship is a way of thinking, designing and acting for change. The public sector is often criticized about its resistance to change. While building coalitions, managing risk, and developing a shared understanding of both problems and solutions are important steps in making change acceptable, a strategy of intrapreneurial change management is important.

Over the past few months, Colleen has engaged some of Canada’s exciting government innovators in a series of interviews and dialogues to explore how they tackle the challenge of being intrapreneurs. She asked them to share their methods and strategic approaches to enabling change during their career. Some elements have appeared time and again during these interviews and we are going to share them here with you with the caveat that all intrapreneurial activity is going to be unique because even when we deal with similar problems and similar organizations the details, the history, the access to resources, the clients, and the windows of opportunity are going to be different enough that a one-size-fits-all approach is sure to fail.

Relationship building: all intrapreneurial activities are about relationship building. Innovation in organizations is always about challenging certain organizational cultural norms. This is certainly true – often more so – in the public sector. It is also the case that intrapreneurs ‘build a case’ for the change that they want to see occur; coalitions of like-minded people and of stakeholders are created and expanded over time. Intrapreneurship is inherently multi-lateral and cooperative.

Having a champion/political support: the intrapreneurs with whom we have spoken unfailingly mention that that having political support in their organization was a critical step in being able to engage in innovative thinking and in being able to implement that thinking. This relationship is one based on accountability and honesty. Intrapreneurs must be able to exercise a high degree of both in their connection with their champions.

Fairness and transparency: The activity of anyone who is interested in achieving change through cooperative behaviour must rest on a foundation of trust and openness. This approach extends in a 360 degrees fashion towards all who are affected by the process.

Speak truth to power: this is an extension of the previous point. There is no doubt that honesty and openness are critical characteristics for intrapreneurial action. They are at the basis of building solid change coalitions, just as they are necessary to improve the capacity of the organization to explore its limits and its opportunities.

Seize opportunities: do not shy away from difficult challenges. The intrapreneur must be able to take on difficult challenges because those are often those where the most opportunities for innovation are extant. Often they will require new ways of approaching the issue and almost naturally they tend to discourage people who use ‘status quo’ thinking and approaches.

The power of intrapreneurship doesn’t lie in a formula or a leadership competency. It lies in the creativity one takes to their relentless pursuit of excellence, regardless of the task at hand. Thank goodness we still have thinkers, policy designers and doers in the public service whose obsession with excellence and hunger for greatness reminds us that we can’t continue to accept the limits of our past thinking. The people who have pioneered a path to great progress in the public sector have always been system-changers – intrapreneurial minds who understood the “need for and how to” change thinking from within.

By recognizing and rewarding the intrapreneurial mindset and spirit, the talents of public service innovators might just lead us down the path to that much desired culture of innovation many of us are dreaming about.

This article was co-authored by Colleen McCormick and Andrea Migone. It was originally printed in the Public Sector Management Journal, Volume 25, Issue 3, September 2014.

Colleen McCormickColleen McCormick is Director of Strategic Issues with the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training and former Director, Innovative Partnerships where she managed the social innovation file in the Ministry of Social Development. Colleen is also the founder of Social Innovators Network Foundation. Previously, she was a TEDxMileZero organizer and National Chair of the New Professionals for the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. She has an MBA from RRU and a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation from the University of Waterloo. You can contact her on Twitter @SInnovatorsNet.


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