We live in a world that celebrates entrepreneurs. We love renegade innovators like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk who buck the system, envision and create entirely new industries, and take down established giants. We wish we had the courage and opportunity to follow in their footsteps.
Many of us feel stifled in our own roles. We grow weary of the boring sameness of our day-to-day jobs. Our lives look less like startup culture and more like Dilbert. Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey found that 49% of millennials would quit their job in the next two years if they could.
Entrepreneurship offers a tantalizing promise of something better: the opportunity to control our own destiny while doing exciting, meaningful, impactful work. Entrepreneurial mythology becomes a kind of fantasy escape for us, in the same way that Science Fiction or Romance novels might be for others.
Some of us will indeed take the leap, quit our jobs, and become founders and entrepreneurs. But the honest reality is that many of us won’t.
The vast majority of us will go on working in larger organizations. We will have bosses, colleagues, and subordinates. We will be accountable to stakeholders and clients. Funding, project approvals, and human resources will come from others. Office politics will drive us crazy. Many of us will have families and financial commitments that require stable employment. Our lives will consist of numerous interdependencies with other people. In short, many of us will not have the freedom to embark on our own solo adventure.
I would like to suggest that hope is not lost. We can view both our day-to-day frustrations and our entrepreneurial yearnings as summons to a better way of living. Rather than seeing our interdependencies and commitments as shackles, we can learn to view ourselves as change agents in organizations and communities that are in constant need of renewal.
That is the essence of intrapreneurship.
I have dreamed about working for myself since I was a child. I started writing fiction when I was six; to this day, I still long to “make it” as a writer. In elementary school, I designed and sold desk intrusion alarms to my classmates. I started writing software in seventh grade and never stopped. In the years since I have picked up many programming languages, designed computer games, written software to facilitate language learning, sketched out business plans for multiple companies, and spent untold hours studying entrepreneurship and imagining how I might make the leap.
Yet at 40 years old, I am still part of the organization I joined at 18: the United States Air Force. The Department of Defense is the biggest bureaucracy in the country, something I am painfully reminded of almost every day. Although flying cargo planes was exciting, I spent much of my early years doing mindless, soul-crushing office chores that are causing Air Force pilots to quit in droves. I spent numerous years in higher education, studying political science and international relations, hoping to someday make a positive impact–only to feel ever-deeper despondency as the world seemed to unravel. My career coincided with two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a wide range of other foreign policy debacles. I constantly dreamed of leaving the military. My heart’s deepest desire was to cut all ties, move into the mountains with my family, and never look back.
Yet along the way, I have carved out a unique role for myself: I am an intrapreneur. I have spent these long, frustrating years trying to change my institution for the better. I have overhauled low-level processes, created new tools, automated labor-intensive processes, written new software, built knowledge-sharing systems, and fought for policy changes. I have done my best to teach, mentor, and build communities around innovation. As I got older and more experienced, I tried to create a new paradigm for swarming humanitarian aid through military sieges. We incorporated as a nonprofit, but that was largely an organizational hack; ultimately, I was trying to create a new capability the United States could use to help cope with humanitarian crises in places like Syria. I also founded a successful “startup” inside the Defense Innovation Unit to deal with the rapidly emerging threat from small drones. That catapulted our team into high-level Pentagon politics, as DoD’s lumbering bureaucracy struggled to keep up with the exponential acceleration of new technology.
Intrapreneurship has been a grueling personal journey. I have had rare and incredible opportunities for both education and impact, for which I am deeply grateful. However, I have also spent the prime years of my life breaking myself against a bureaucracy that crushes everything in its way. Much of what I have built has been destroyed. I have taken significant pay cuts and hurt my chances at promotions. I am frequently misunderstood. I have had to fight the system every step of the way to keep doing successful work that is ultimately aimed at bettering that system. Many of my intrapreneurial friends have left in frustration. My mental health has frayed at times, as the stress and anxiety have been overwhelming.
Yet I would not trade that journey for the world. Grappling with my own personal journey has given me deep insights into the nature of intrapreneurship. It is a special and important calling, especially at a time when so many of our organizations, institutions, and communities seem to be coming apart.
A commitment to intrapreneurship empowers you to rise above boredom and mediocrity, but it also pushes you constantly against your own limits. You must learn and grow, or you will be crushed. You must learn to manage your own psychology, and to find your own sources of peace and happiness outside of the work itself. Ironically, that struggle can be enriching by driving you to invest across all domains of your life.
What are we after?
We might start by asking why entrepreneurship sounds so appealing. Let me begin by discarding three lousy reasons to be an entrepreneur: fame, wealth, and ease. Fame is transient, and society loves nothing more than to tear down success. Just ask Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg. As for wealth, yes, entrepreneurship can make you rich, but 95% of startups fail. And anyone who actually does entrepreneurship will tell you it entails a ton of work.
Let’s move on to some higher motivations for entrepreneurship:
Autonomy: One of our highest needs as human beings is to control our own destiny. We hate being fettered; we yearn for the freedom to go where our desires take us.
Creativity: Imaginative people cannot tolerate being bored. We want to exercise our full range of talents and gifts.
Meaning: We want our work to count for something. Menial, repetitive tasks or jobs aimed only at wealth generation can leave us yearning for more.
Mastery: High performers thrive on challenge, continual improvement, and the pursuit of mastery. We yearn for roles that demand our highest level of performance.
Efficiency: We want our organizations, processes, and tools to work well. Continual improvement is in our nature. Wasting time on the inefficiencies endemic to large organizations can be infuriating.
Entrepreneurship appeals to all these motivations. It extends the promise of creative, self-directed, fulfilling work that exercises our full range of talents and abilities. Entrepreneurial teams are generally small, agile, and fast-moving.
The question, then, is whether we can satisfy any of these motivations without quitting our jobs to become entrepreneurs.
The promise of intrapreneurship
Let’s start with a dictionary definition of intrapreneur:
an employee of a large corporation who is given freedom and financial support to create new products, services, systems, etc., and does not have to follow the corporation’s usual routines or protocols.
This definition is okay but largely aspirational. If only we were given freedom, financial support, and permission to work outside usual routines and protocols!
Let’s define an intrapreneur more casually as someone who works to create positive change in his or her organization, regardless of the degree of institutional support. An intrapreneur works tirelessly to institutionalize new products, services, or systems and often assumes personal responsibility for bootstrapping resources and garnering support.
Organizations need intrapreneurs in order to survive and thrive. That is because the essential nature of organizations is to standardize behavior and minimize deviations. They do this for good reason: the entire purpose of an organization is to coordinate the efforts of large groups of people. However, that same process of standardization also means that organizations become stale over time and struggle to adapt when needed. A healthy organization must strike a careful balance between stability and change; these two forces interact in an ongoing dance.
Organizations have numerous built-in processes to facilitate change but these can move slowly, and often a willful personality is required to use them properly.
Intrapreneurs are an organization’s secret weapon; they are special agents who are loyal to an organization’s values and goals but also deliberately work for reform and renewal. They envision and work to realize entirely new possibilities. It is the patient, persistent work of intrapreneurs that allows organizations to adapt in a fast-changing world.
In theory, intrapreneurship can satisfy all the same motivations that drives entrepreneurs. Intrapreneurs should have greater autonomy in the organization than most people. Their entire job is to be creative. Many of their efforts will result in efficiency gains, keeping an organization agile and effective. Because intrapreneurs are entrusted to be self-starters, they must be exceptionally competent. They will have abundant opportunities to grow through challenges. The task of helping a large organization improve and adapt can also be deeply meaningful, particularly if the organization embodies a purpose an intrapreneur believes in.
This all assumes that an organization manages its intrapreneurs properly, which is not always the case. That puts a large burden on intrapreneurs to manage their own psychology and carve out their own destiny.
What makes intrapreneurship different
Intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship are not the same thing, even if they do share many similarities. Intrapreneurs play by different rules. They operate within the terrain of a particular organization, with its own values, mission, culture, processes, and people.
Successful intrapreneurs must learn how to:
- Maximize their freedom of maneuver within that organization
- Access resources like people, funding, or IT support
- Obtain support from executives or senior leaders
- Prove the value of experiments and turn experiments into enduring capabilities
- Overcome obstacles posed by existing processes
- Build coalitions of supporters and manage blockers
- Maintain their own legitimacy while challenging established ways of doing business
- Stay healthy despite struggling against a juggernaut bureaucracy every day
- Find ways of satisfying deep needs that are often not met in a stifling work environment
Managing intrapreneurs also presents unique challenges. Most organizations do not utilize intrapreneurs to their full potential; many even drive them out. Effective leaders or executives must learn how to:
- Identify who is adding value versus who is merely being disruptive
- Protect and empower successful intrapreneurs
- Create organizational processes for identifying, resourcing, and scaling promising innovations
- Train, mentor, and guide aspiring intrapreneurs
Because intrapreneurship has not received the same level of attention as entrepreneurship, finding resources to learn these skills can be a challenge. Many intrapreneurs, especially early in their careers, feel alone. We must do better at equipping intrapreneurs and their leaders for this journey.
Being an intrapreneur and leading intrapreneurs are both important and rewarding challenges. Both can elevate us above the day-to-grind of doing business as usual.
We live in an era when it seems that all our institutions and organizations are failing us. Every one of us is a part of companies, schools, government institutions, or local communities that desperately need renewal. We need intrapreneurs who will do the exhausting but rewarding work of creating positive change. We need leaders and executives who understand and protect these intrapreneurs. We also need to train both intrapreneurs and leaders in the unique skills and mindset required to lead change.
In the coming weeks and months I plan to share some of what I have learned in my own journey. I hope this proves useful.