The Intrapreneurial Spirit

I write this blog because I have an unwavering belief in the potential of the public service.

With this belief in mind, and with an Intrapreneurial spirit, I use this platform as a way to reimagine, redefine, and redesign the 21st Century Public Service.

Intrapreneurs are people who adopt entrepreneurial attitudes and apply start-up practices within large bureaucratic organizations. Recently, I came across another excellent illustration of this concept featuring David Gram, Head of Business and Marketing Development at Future Lab, on how LEGO continues to invent the future of play. Gram reveals how LEGO avoided going bankrupt in the face of challenges, while promoting innovation within the larger organisation to ensure that they will “inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.”

I’ve been studying public innovators and intrapreneurship in government formally, and more importantly, informally over the past decade. Now, I interview “intrapreneurs in action” because I want to showcase their inspiring Principles and Practices in an attempt to accomplish two goals:

  1. Demystifying how innovation actually happens in government; and
  2. Shining a light on innovative thoughts and actions.

I have interviewed both new and experienced intrapreneurs including the head of the Canada Revenue Agency, Deputy Ministers, Assistant Deputy Ministers, managers, analysts, administrators and even interns.

What I have found in my research is that intrapreneurs share principles of commitment, perseverance, determination and patience. They seek to understand how to get things done in government, and how to do things better, while also addressing systemic problems in creative ways. Imagination and a sense of possibility drive their intrapreneurial spirits.

Here are a few of my key learnings from this year’s interviews which serve to highlight examples of intrapreneurship and demonstrate why I’m so inspired.

  • Despite government’s trepidation around the use of social media in its early days, the Commissioner of Revenue and Chief Executive Officer of the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) was an early adopter, and has since become a social media trendsetter in the federal government. Committed to creating the space for a new organizational culture to emerge, Andrew Treusch uses tools like Twitter to meaningfully communicate in real-time with his 40,000-person organization. It’s his relentless personal commitment to the organization, and his people, that drives him to try out new ways to seek direct policy input about the future of the CRA from workers “on the front lines.”
  • As a 14-year Deputy Minister who was so committed to moving breakthrough thinking forward, Maria David-Evans would put her word, reputation and career on the line by promising her resignation if a change initiative she was championing didn’t deliver the results she passionately believed were possible.
  • The first-ever Open Data BC Hackathon where people interested in open data were invited to access information and legislation to brainstorm ideas, create, and showcase apps to demonstrate different ways data could be used creatively.
  • Dragon’s Den type policy pitches, Tiger Teams, Communities of Practice, and federal and provincial lectures by public servants (in the style of TED talks) are all simple examples of intrapreneurship in action.

In fact, the BC Public Service has a Corporate Intrapreneurship Competency. In the Achieving Business Results section of Strategic and Business Leadership levels, the competency is described as:

Corporate intrapreneurship focuses on venture creation, governance, differentiation and integration of new ventures within the organization. This job requires the following most of the time:

  • Pursues opportunities on behalf on the unit within the organization for new areas of activities;
  • When dealing with new challenges or initiatives, moves forward in the face of incomplete or unclear information and adapts along the way;
  • Takes the lead in addressing risky situations/problems; 
  • When faced with setbacks and discouragement in a new project, searches for solutions to keep the project going.

As you can see, intrapreneurship is about a mindset rather than an output. It’s about the “how” you get to better outcomes by trying new practices, taking different approaches, and involving more problem-solvers in the problem you’re addressing.

Intrapreneurs don’t lead change alone; they do not work in isolation. Rather, they are fascinating strategists, capable of finding the right mix of people, with the right set of skills, at the right time.

2015: THE YEAR OF DEMONSTRATION

I’m calling 2015 “the year of demonstration.” One of my biggest frustrations with people who want change is the lack of innovating through demonstration, particularly in the public service. This is a natural consequence of fear of failure and adversity to risk.

What if we freed our “intrapreneurial spirits” to redefine our roles as public servants – to see ourselves as convenors, connectors, collaborators and solution-seekers?

Citizens’ expectations and demands are only going to increase while government budgets continue to shrink. We can’t do more with less until we reimagine our role as public servants. Taking full advantage of the collective intelligence, tenacity and creativity of public servants throughout our entire organization can help us meet the needs of the 21st century. No longer can we place key challenges in the hands of a few managers and leaders – today, we must put them in the hands of every employee.

THE ERA OF COLLABORATION IS UPON US

I want to be clear that intrapreneurship is not about undermining the direction or rules of our institutions. On the contrary, I have found that effective organizational change agents operate within the system to shift the system. Unleashing the intrapreneurial mindset is about creating vehicles to enable robust policies and improve outcomes through building a collaborative culture.

So, how do we redesign the next generation of public service?

Beginning with a mantra of relentless optimism is a good start. We can support each other’s desires to bring about large-scale disruptive change by mobilizing a broad range of people, expertise and latent assets in new and exciting ways.

Let’s challenge ourselves to become master collaborators in 2015. Mass-scale collaboration is needed to address our challenges, like individuals cooperating in a massive multi-player online game. We need to work together to tackle our issues.

THE POWER OF INFORMAL SOCIAL NETWORKS

Informal networks have always connected like-minded public innovators. I am a big believer in operating in the “space in between.” After all, this is where the magic happens – where innovation thrives and start-up practices live. Today, it is easy to cut across organizational boundaries and create exciting connections.

It’s through these self-organized social networks that intrapreneurs are demonstrating methods to reimagine, redefine and redesign the next generation of public service.

We can foster this intrapreneurial culture together. Anyone can be a part of this growing movement. There are no barriers to entry; all that’s needed is for us, the intrapreneurs, to lead by example while creating collaborative vehicles that connect our experience, ideas and solution-focused enthusiasm.

If you’re interested in reimagining the public service, reach out on twitter to @SInnovatorsNet.


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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