Can Intrapreneurship actually happen.

Recently someone shared a link on twitter to this post on Medium by Jeff Gothelf > Intrapreneurship is a lie. So I became a consultant.   Initially, I was in two minds about whether to click on it and read it but I was intrigued enough that I did.
After reading I started to reflect about whether I shared the same views that were expressed in the post and I realised that about 12 months ago I did. This time last year I would have said this post resonated with EXACTLY how I felt…But I understand that now I think differently and believe that there are some interesting lessons that I have learnt, some of them were very painful to accept.
I used to think of myself as an intrapreneur and thought that I was a pretty good one too, I mean I even won an award and was also nominated in the LGC most influential list. So the feedback loops around me were saying that I was pretty good, but I have continued to struggle to make sense of how all of this could happen and yet I was failing to create a lasting sustainable change in my council…so much so I wrote a post about that disconnect in relation to the difference between internal influence and external influence.
So revisiting the post on Medium – it is a 6-minute read and worth it, so suggest you take a moment if you haven’t already. There was so much in the post that did and didn’t resonate that I wanted to share my reflections.
In some ways, Jeff’s post for me makes an assumption that entrepreneurial spirit is and will likely sit with a few people and that in itself creates some challenges and problems when trying to replicate as an internal person as Jeff points out “big org realities kick in”. For me and this is something that I think I have made many mistakes around in the past, is that being entrepreneurial isn’t necessarily something that a person can do in isolation, it is more about the conditions and the system you operate within that allows the innovation and creativity to flourish.
In the past, I have assumed that I have the power to change things but am only really limited to change on the edges of the organisation, this has made me feel better inside in the past that small things happen but the failures to reach the core of the organisation for lasting change is something I simply tolerated and perhaps ignored as I didn’t want to face up to what the real issues were that were stopping that. What I have learnt over the last 6 months in order to be successful you have to ensure you have the right conditions and the wider system alignment to ensure lasting and sustainable change actually happens.
So the question I started asking myself more was – why is there a difference in the perceived impact between external and internal people and what are the causes of this variation?
Moving on for a moment What I’ve also learnt is that until new organisational models exist, ownership and power lies within the formal hierarchy.  There may be some people who disagree but from someone who is on the inside this is very much the case and is one of the lessons I’ve learnt which I will share more on in this post.
Incentives to change or improve the work people do doesn’t sit within the teams who do the work but with managers or change teams who sit outside of that work. So at what point can someone take real ownership of any change as the majority is imposed upon them.   So where is the incentive for those people who actually understand what is happening, who see the consequences (intended or otherwise) and yet are blind to the assumptions and thinking that led to the design of the work?
In the section of the post which talks about integration with the rest of the organisation, the question I have in my head is – Why is the responsibility for ideas disconnected from the people who implement them or even do the work, what creates this separation and what assumptions drive the design of that flow of work?
The challenge here and the underlying assumptions I believe sit beneath this are that you need to have people who have particular skills and traits that do “their bit” and then you can successfully move that along a pipeline to someone else and they do their bit and so on, until the change you anticipated or something like it pops out the other end.  The issue I have with this is that this is flawed in its design as to why you would not help the people who do the work develop the skills, knowledge and understanding to respond to the problems they have and allow them to do it. Or even allow them to pull expertise into their work at the time they need it!
The element of the post that resonated the most with me is the section about external influence always trumping internal opinion.  This was the bit that has aligned to my own personal experiences the most and has been the cause of most of my own struggles. However, I’ve started to realise where I went wrong and how in pushing and pushing and pushing to do the things I thought were right but never saw come to fruition is because I was trying to push and push and push. The irony is that I’ve learned to now operate and work in an on-demand model where I and the team are pulled to work with people because they want and value our input. This shift is a fundamental and yet profound change in how you can be successful as an intrapreneur – this will be at the heart of how intrapreneurs can design themselves to be successful.
The biggest irony in all of this is that we have on in the past pulled external people in to say exactly the same thing as the internal people do?
Finally, there is a fascinating comment towards the end of the post that states “there will never be a way for the kind of results both seek to be achieved unless large companies can make the cultural shift to spread innovative thinking throughout the company while finding ways to reward this work in a way that retains top talent.”
My only comment on this is that any size and shape company essentially needs to do one key thing – Understand and make visible the thinking and assumptions that create and lead to the design of everything in it. Knowing this allows you to better understand how to move forward…