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Entrepreneur vs intrapreneur

“An intrapreneur is an entrepreneur who is located in a particular institution because that institution can satisfy the value proposition that drives her/him” – Ken Dovey, final lecture June 8, 2017.

While I was an MBT student, I thought this Ken’s definition of an ‘intrapreneur’ was, well… bullshit.

I figured it gave the wantrepreneur (a wannabe entrepreneur) license to rebrand themselves as an intrapreneur. This rebranding would help them stay trapped in a desk job and pretend to be an agent of change, without stepping out of bounds or breaking the rules. As it turns out, that was me projecting myself onto the definition, instead of really looking into what it meant.

As experience taught me, Ken was spot on and I was dead wrong.

Here’s how I came to this conclusion.

In December 2016, my company was acquired. I was tasked with integrating my distributed team, re-launching our product and doing it at scale. On top of that, I was nursing my wife back to health after a horse kick to the face, trailblazing a path to self-acceptance and working through an identity crisis as I ‘let go’ of my company.

Combine all of these ingredients and what do you have?

A high-strung intrapreneur.

In this post, I’ll share three quick lessons from my intrapreneurship journey. A warning: these lessons are less brandable than their entrepreneurial counterparts, like “move fast and break stuff” or “do things that don’t scale”. Frankly, intrapreneurship is a lot less attractive than entrepreneurship, but that doesn’t mean it’s less important. I mean, when did a mid-level manager get covered by Forbes or TechCrunch for thoughtfully managing change? I digress – let’s dig in.

Collar your skunkworks

Like a moth to a flame, an intrapreneur is drawn to exploring and pushing the boundaries of an organization. Ken’s example of hanging the MBITM site off the UTS domain is a fun one to explore. I can see Ken dropping in through the roof, suspended by a high-tension wire over pressure sensors, trying to upload a website from his USB stick onto the UTS infrastructure. It could be a blockbuster – Mission: Impossible (Rogue Academic).

Fortune favors the bold, but prudent risk management favors the employee. If you plan to take some risks, know your downside and mitigate your risk by using a collar. This is trading parlance for limiting your range of outcomes. In simple terms, it’s a RAID register with a twist. Capture the risk, the probability, the impact and what you’ll do to mitigate it, real-time. This framework will help you manage your risk, as well as be able to explain the thought process that drove your decision-making. This doubles as your insurance policy if your best-laid plans go awry.

Ask your team to fail

Embracing a culture of experimentation will help you build a team of intrapreneurs around you. A data-driven decision-making process helps foster ownership, accountability and drives velocity. It democratizes decisions away from the ‘HiPPO’ (highest paid person’s opinion) to the data. Experimentation is also a great tiebreaker when you’re trying something new, different or dare I say, ‘out of the box.’

So how do you actually put this into practice?

You stand up a lightweight research process. For the academics in the audience, this should come naturally – your goal is to prove or disprove a hypothesis by analyzing data and reviewing the results. Here’s what the process looks like. (A thank you to Brian Balfour for popularizing this methodology in growth marketing.)

Image source 

You might be thinking “Well Alex, that’s great… but, we’re already moving at a glacial pace, so adding one more process might bring us to a grinding halt.” I agree that you will go slow… but if you lead by example and allow a few hair-brained experiments to fail, the resistance will subside and your team will follow your lead.

Hit the tiny gong!

As an entrepreneur, fulfillment is fleeting. You hit one milestone, but before you can take a breath, you might find yourself in a dip. As an intrapreneur, the time between the ups and downs broadens. It takes longer to reach milestones, so an entrepreneur who hasn’t worked in a large organization is oft-branded a ‘bull in a china shop’, looking for something to break.

So if there are no daily dopamine hits, how do you maintain drive and motivation?

Ken’s thoughts from his final lecture are useful here:

“As an intrapreneur, as an academic, as a human being, I need recognition. And one of the things I have had to learn in the process of running the MBT is that, as an intrapreneur, as someone who is perceived as a threat to the system; someone who is not controlled by the system; someone is really a pain in the arse to the system; how can I expect them to recognise me? It’s a contradiction. If they’re going to recognize me, they’re going to have to concede some of the issues that they have created. So I have had to learn that, as an intrapreneur, you’re never going to get recognition in the traditional way. As a human being, that’s painful.

The second part of this learning is that the fulfillment I’ve got out of working on this program far exceeds any value that I could have got from recognition. The culture drives you to wanting recognition – “look at me, look at me, look at how clever I am or how powerful I am, or whatever”. My learning is that fulfillment is a much greater reward and often I have had to remind myself about that when I slip into feeling regret or anger that the recognition for what we have achieved has not manifested.”

I’ve learned that regularly celebrating small (even tiny) wins has helped keep the momentum going. This is as simple as writing our wins on a whiteboard where we can all see them. We also have a tiny gong to celebrate a win, as well. It’s goofy, but fun.

To close; a member of my team recently reminded me that “we’re not doing it for the glory, we’re doing it for the customer.” He reinforced the leading point of this article. You might not get a frontpage mention on a popular blog, but that’s OK. It’s not about the glory.

1 Comment

  1. Ken Dovey says:

    Fantastic contribution, Alex! The wisdom of experience, that has been deeply and critically reflected upon, ‘speaks’ loudly in this piece! Thank you!

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