Living with intrapreneurs

This post is about how to manage intrapreneurs in the organisation without either destroying them or destroying everyone else! It is the third part of a mini series on intrapreneurs. Part One, sets out an intrapreneurial manifesto and can be found here. Part Two talks about the integrity commitments that intrapreneurs have to make and can be found here.

All successful organisations have a successful engine. It is the beating heart that generates value. It is found in a combination of brilliant strategy, good processes, great products or initiatives, effective networks, a legacy of trust, and high quality staff.

To keep being successful, organisations have to do two things at the same time: Look after the current engine and develop the engine of the future. The problem is that these activities demand different sorts of people working in different sorts of ways within different cultural frameworks. This is why intrapreneurs are so vital for the health of an organisation and why they annoy so many people all at the same time.

Looking after the current engine demands attention to efficiency, economy and coordination. It is about incremental improvements from making sure all the parts of the machine are properly aligned and well oiled. The larger the organisation the harder the work of alignment. There are more bits to understand and more people to consult and more fear of somehow damaging the engine. Looking after the engine becomes very time consuming. We become very concerned about ‘taking people with us’ and not upsetting other parts of the organisation. We become very aware of roles and responsibilities. We end up as cogs in the great machine, our roles defined, our boundaries set, initiative crushed, disempowered. The key words are coordination (meaning control) and consultation (meaning veto).

This internal focus gives huge benefits. All those incremental improvements and better alignment add up to great impact. The downside is that this internal focus can make us blind to changes that are happening outside the organisation. We become so invested in the current engine that we find it hard to see where it has become irrelevant. We can end up with a brilliantly functioning engine which is increasingly disconnected from the demands of customers, supporters and stakeholders.

It is this internal focus that drives intrapreneurs mad.

Intrapreneurs see how the engine is stuttering and failing. They see the external stakeholders who are underwhelmed, and the opportunities that have been lost because of the way the engine works. They cannot understand why so much energy is being spent on something that is not fit for the future. And the thing that makes them most mad is the sense that making the engine work well has become more important to the organisation than the original purpose. They despise and disparage the internal processes not because they are lazy or contrary or arrogant (although all are possible) but because it feels like a huge exercise in missing the point.

In their anger intrapreneurs obviously undervalue the good things that the current engine is delivering (their salaries and budgets for instance), and undervalue the huge extra value generated from it working better. And because they undervalue these things the rest of the organisation can find all kinds of words to throw at them- maverick, arrogant, thoughtless and disloyal. They have to deal with being misunderstood and mistrusted. And those things really hurt because true intrapreneurs are passionately committed to their organisations- that is why they are still here.

And this is the challenge for managers- it is vital that the intrapreneurs are still here.

Without them the engine will take over, the system will slow down, the point will be missed and the future will belong to someone else. So part of the managers role is to protect intrapreneurs from the organisation. Without that protection the engine will wear them down and run them down.

So here are four things managers can do to help intrapreneurs:

Help them to remember the point
Intrapreneurs have a deep commitment to what really matters in the organisation but an almost endless fascination with how that might be worked out! It is more interesting to come up with a new approach, strategy or soundbite than following through on what was already agreed. Partly that is because intrapreneurs are drawing their maps as they go but partly it is a lack of discipline and consistency. Or it is something darker. Intrapreneurs feel passion and anger and can easily demonise other bits of the organisation which they then fight. We need to be reminded that winning the fight isn’t the point either.

Help them with their relationships
Because intrapreneurs are agents of change they are usually experiencing conflict with another bit of the organisation- or more accurately- other people in the organisation. One of the biggest challenges is to keep thinking the best of others. The manager has to empathise with the frustration while suggesting that disagreement isn’t actual evidence of evil intent and character! Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against a system. Intrapreneurs need to be challenged to think the best of others, turn the other cheek and treat others as we would like to be treated- even when being misunderstood and questioned.

Help them to pick their battles
Not every battle is worth fighting, not every trench is worth dying in, not every argument is worth winning. The battle isn’t the point, the point is the point. Sometimes the point gets lost in ego and pride and the sheer adrenalin rush of trying to do things differently. It is also true that not every battle is winnable today even if it is worth fighting for. A strategic retreat and ‘biding ones time’ is sometimes the bravest course of action. Annoying and successful is tolerated. Annoying and unsuccessful is just annoying!

Help them find allies
If you are managing intrapreneurs you cannot merely be professional you have to genuinely be a believer, an advocate, an encourager and a critical friend. You also have to help them build alliances, to find common ground with others and surround themselves with truthful encouragers. Disheartened intrapreneurs tend to isolate themselves, not turn up to meetings, ignore phone calls and emails. And isolation breeds disillusionment, discouragement and ultimately organisational or self-destructive behaviour.

One Comment

on “Living with intrapreneurs
One Comment on “Living with intrapreneurs
  1. Thanks for bringing great insight from both sides of the fence. With a better mutual understanding and appreciation, we can surely get the best of both worlds.