A five-part series about understanding and motivating your innovative employees

Part 1: Understanding the Frustrations of Intrapreneurs

Above is the (doctored) photo I show to leaders to help them visualize how intrapreneurs often feel in their organization’s work culture. As you can see, it shows a few dolphins leaping gracefully together above a beautiful blue pool while a racehorse beside them paddles frantically, trying to stay afloat. It usually takes a couple of seconds for the audience to notice the horse but as they do, everyone laughs.

However humorous the photo is, as an intrapreneur I often felt like exactly like this racehorse: Surrounded by talented people that help organizations function, but unable to contribute my unique talents and ideas in an environment that hindered them.

Why should you care how your intrapreneurial employees feel? Because in the turbulent times we live in, change is the norm, competition is ramping up, and innovation is the key to surviving and thriving. You simply have no choice but to turn your attention to innovation and how your organization may need to reinvent itself, its products, and it services to remain relevant. Your intrapreneurs are key to that reinvention.

I can attest to the fact that most organizations are exceptional at attracting and hiring intrapreneurial employees.  I have often been hired on the strength of innovative ideas and business plans I presented in interviews; my former employers did a great job of declaring their devotion to innovation on their websites, promotional materials, and social media accounts.

Here’s the problem: While most organizations are good at attracting intrapreneurs, they are often quite unskilled in engaging and retaining such employees. There is a vast difference between what they say on their website and what actually happens in the workplace.

I don’t make this statement lightly, nor do I make it with the belief that people are evil or incompetent when they disengage intrapreneurs. Many organizations simply have not yet caught up to what’s necessary to truly become an innovative organization, never mind how to harness the energy and ideas of their intrapreneurs.

While most organizations are good at attracting intrapreneurs, they are often quite unskilled in engaging and retaining such employees.

I make this statement because not only have I experienced this repeatedly in my 30-year career, I’ve spent the past few years interviewing intrapreneurs at all levels of their organizations. They are front-line workers and C-suite executives and everything in between.  They work in public, private, and not-for-profit organizations.

Over 200 people have told me about their experiences as intrapreneurs, and I’ve identified five key frustrations (in no particular order) that appear to contribute the most to intrapreneurs’ decision to leave their organizations:

  1. Not being permitted to take action on the things they were hired to do.
  2. Micromanagement with multiple and repeated approval levels.
  3. Ideas frequently turned down as ‘too risky’ even when risk is minimal and mitigated.
  4. Questions don’t get answered or are met with hostility.
  5. Results are too far off or too slow.

These frustrations can absolutely be addressed with a little strategy and awareness, and you don’t have to completely redesign your current culture or break the bank to do it. Intrapreneurs are typically very flexible people, and when they see your organization making a genuine effort to support and embrace them, they’re almost always ready to re-engage and get moving.

With that in mind, I’ll spend the new few blogs addressing 3 key steps to support you in identifying and mobilizing your intrapreneurs:

Step 1: Annoyance Management. If you’re feeling annoyed by an employee who’s constantly asking questions, chances are you’re dealing with an intrapreneur. We’ll discuss how to turn ‘being furious into curious’ with your intrapreneurs (with thanks to the authors of Crucial Conversations for that turn of phrase).

Step 2: Bureaucracy Busting. Lockheed Martin is famous for its ‘Skunk Works’, a term now widely-used to describe an internal group that is given a high degree of autonomy, unhampered by bureaucracy. We’ll discuss how you can carve out space, time, and freedom for your intrapreneurs to create without requiring a massive cultural shift.

Step 3: Chance Taking. There is a huge misconception about entrepreneurs, and their intrapreneur cousins, that they are big risk-taskers. I’ll share with you why that’s a myth and how you can help your organization support ‘smart risks’ when considering innovation, taking chances on well-thought-out ideas.

After those ABCs, we’ll wind up with some key actions you can take to help intrapreneurs get out of the dolphin pool as well as how to set them free to run with their ideas on an open and innovative plain.