One of the hardest lessons to learn as an innovator is that the world doesn’t owe you anything–even if you feel like it should.
This is more complex than “don’t act entitled.”
In most large organizations, a significant number of employees are happy to carry out business as usual. They file its reports, comply with its requirements, operate through its processes, and attend its scheduled meetings. They are, in other words, doing exactly what the organization has asked them to do. These people fulfill vital functions. However, carrying out routine instructions does not necessarily require a lot of imagination, creativity, or strenuous uphill boulder-pushing.
A smaller number of employees regularly identify inefficiencies in the organization’s programming or see opportunities to do better. Of those, only a subset can envision and articulate positive, actionable ways to improve. Only a fraction of those have the determination and stamina to actually execute. Those are the true intrapreneurs.
If you are in this subset–a rare leader of change–then you have embraced a sacred and difficult responsibility. You will spend far more energy than many of your peers, will fight the bureaucracy at every turn, will take personal and professional risk, and will go above and beyond your formal job responsibilities without compensation. You will do all this not for yourself, but to create positive change in an organization you believe in.
The organization absolutely should owe you something. It should owe you support, respect, resources, and help clearing blockers.
Your desire for support isn’t necessarily about self-interest or ego satisfaction; it is about your legitimate and rightful need for assistance on your dangerous, difficult quest to improve the organization. The ideal organization would identify its most promising intrapreneurs, promote them, and equip them with the tools needed to create positive change.
The hard truth
Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.
The minute we expect our organizations to give us the assistance we think we deserve, we will be disappointed.
There are several reasons why organizations do not give intrapreneurs what they hope for:
- Organizations are programmed for stability, not change. This tension is built into the universe; to grow, organizations need to standardize processes. That is true even of the most innovative organizations, which is why scaling innovation organizations is so hard. As a changemaker, you will always be cutting against the grain. By definition, you are operating outside (or trying to change) the processes that you wish were helping you.
- Resources are always scarce. Even if your ideas are brilliant, your organization is juggling numerous priorities with limited resources. One of the frustrations of being a leader is that you know you are underresourcing critical needs, but you have so many critical needs that you have no choice.
- It is difficult to identify the best innovators (and innovations) a priori. Even if you have a proven track record, it is hard for your bosses to know whether your idea deserves more resourcing. Many “innovators” offer more heat than light, and even the best innovators have mixed track records. I have suggested or implemented dozens of improvements in my career. Some were knockout successes, some failed, some proved to be lousy ideas, and many had mixed results. It is often a good leadership tactic to place small bets at first, then scale resourcing as an idea proves its value.
- Many organizations are broken. It is sad but true. Many organizations are so dysfunctional that it is simply foolish to expect them to do the right thing. One clear sign of brokenness is when all stakeholders want to execute an idea but cannot find a way. At that point, the “bureaucracy” has taken on a life of its own, beyond anyone’s control.
The mindset shift
Regardless of why your organization isn’t supporting you, don’t dwell on it.
Reframe. Start with the idea that your organization is a blank slate where nobody owes anyone anything. You are nobody special; you are just one voice in a sea of voices. Your ideas exist in a cloud of other ideas. The responsibility for differentiating yourself, building support for your ideas, and executing change rests primarily on your shoulders. Any help you receive is a generous and unexpected gift for which you can express gratitude.
Adopting this kind of thinking has a few benefits.
- It keeps you humble. All of struggle to tame our egos, and our legitimate need for support can quickly bleed into an egocentric sense of entitlement. The premise that the world owes us nothing continually nudges us back.
- It emphasizes your agency, directing your attention to things under your control. Any mental or emotional energy spent wishing things were different is unproductive. Wishful thinking does not create change, generate resources, or advance your goals. Far better to allocate your precious attention to factors under your control.
- It replaces negative emotions with positive ones. Disappointment, frustration, outrage, bitterness, and hurt will erode your health and happiness. These feelings inevitably arise, but if you can develop a habit of capturing and reframing them, you will be happier and have more productive energy. If the world owes you nothing, then any good that comes your way–no matter how feeble–is something to be grateful for. A default posture of gratitude will also help you identify opportunities in any situation.
- It positions you for healthier relationships. The emotions you cultivate will spill over into your working relationships. If you are stressed or angry, those emotions will tinge everything (don’t ask me how I know). On the other hand if you are consistently positive, grateful, and optimistic, you will bring vital energy into relationships. Those same emotions will also spill over into your relationships outside of work. Incidentally, if you bring positive energy into working relationships, you are actually more likely to generate the support you need.
The case of entrepreneurs
The same principle holds true for entrepreneurs working outside the constraints of an existing organization. You founded your startup, wrote your novel, or created a social action campaign because you believe you have a winning idea–and maybe you do. However, for your idea to take flight, you will need a tremendous amount of support from other stakeholders. These might be customers, investors, regulators, volunteers, supporters, or other allies. Entrepreneurs only rarely find the tidal wave of support they are hoping for. Most have to relentlessly fight for every last bit of support.
This brings you to the same inner crossroads. On the one hand, you can harbor resentment or frustration that more support has not materialized. On the other hand, you can start with the premise that the world owes you and your idea nothing. You can build on that foundation, take responsibility, and act to grow the support you need.
Mental reframing does not change your material situation. You still want support, and are still getting less than you hoped for.
However, your attitude makes all the difference in the world.
If you believe the world owes you something, you will ruminate over your hurt and anger. These negative emotions will sap your energy without doing anything to improve your situation, all while potentially damaging key relationships.
On the other hand, starting with the premise that the world owes you nothing lays a foundation for action and growth. You quickly push past negative emotions into the realm of action. You take responsibility for your situation, search out ways to improve it, and take steps to grow the support you need. You direct your energy into productive steps, and along the way, you find abundant opportunities to be grateful.
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash