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The importance of intrapreneurs – and how they work with change agents to foster innovation

Brian Solis
Brian SolisPrincipal Analyst
As Principal Analyst and futurist at Altimeter, I study disruptive technology and its impact on business and society. In my reports, articles and books, I humanise technology and its impact on business and society to help executives gain new perspectives and insights. My research explores digital transformation, customer experience and culture 2.0 and "the future of" industries, trends and behaviour.

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Photo credit Arnaud Lerondeau


In my last article for Tech.Revolution I talked about the role of change agents is a world ruled by Digital Darwinism. With disruptive technology affecting the evolution of society and behavior, customs, norms, beliefs and values, we are witnessing market disruption among evolving customers and employees that is set potentially to wipe out much of what organizations have been doing for decades. Depending on whether you’re a pessimist or an optimist, this is either a threat or an opportunity. Whether you’re a big company, a small one that’s well-established, or just starting up, everyone is held to a new standard:  Compete for tomorrow. “Business as usual” is losing momentum and innovation is no longer an option.  

One way forward is for executives to look within to identify employees who already embrace change and innovation.

Inside every organization are those who are challenging convention, seeking new methods and solutions and introducing ideas on how to compete for the future. They represent the future of the organization. But, many times, their efforts and thoughts, are met with resistance. More so, these idealists can be viewed as deviants and renegades – nonconformists who distract work and strategy from common objectives and performance standards. Without executive support, organization or official charter, however, these mischief-makers are at great risk of taking their purpose and drive elsewhere.


Intrapreneurs and change agents are the key to innovation

Make no mistake, innovation is an imperative. But for innovation to prosper, it takes a culture that cultivates and incentivizes new behavior and pursuits. It takes leadership. And, it takes talent, expertise and passion – not only to challenge convention, but also to push through the barriers that hinder the road forward. The good news is that there are individuals strewn throughout most organizations today who are ready and determined to innovate. Alongside those change agents I talked about previously sit the intrapreneurs. When officially recognized, sanctioned, and organized, these intrapreneurs and change agents represent critical building blocks of the future.

Who are these intrapreneurs?

Early on, they’re individuals who see the effects and the promise of digital Darwinism. They possess skill sets, purpose and beliefs that can introduce new ways to work, create new products and services, and develop new market opportunities.

While there are overlaps in their efforts, they are unique in their mission. They and their change agent partners-in-crime see the outside drivers of digital Darwinism. They also recognize immediate and long-term areas of focus that will get the company on an evolutionary track.

Intrapreneurs are akin to entrepreneurs, but instead of operating on their own, they are employees on the inside of the organization. They represent the stewards of experimentation, new pursuits and ultimately, innovation and business performance. They take strategic risks on behalf of the company to pursue new ideas and operate internal/external groups to manage innovation efforts. For example, intrapreneurs oftentimes manage innovation centers or labs, lead startup partnerships, and develop innovation test and learn programs.

As such they work alongside and complement the change agents – the champions of (digital) transformation. Change agents see and feel the impact of digital on their work and the effect they can in turn have on the market. More so, they see need beyond their work, seeking to partner with other groups and stakeholders to help and collaborate with them to digitally transform. They are supporters of innovation and iteration (incremental improvements) but also recognize the resistance that stands in the way of progress.

Together, they learn how to unite, navigate cultural challenges, and earn executive support to drive innovation and transformation in ways that would have otherwise languished or failed. Right now, their work is decentralized, bogged down in politics and process, and lack the traditional change management skills necessary to independently align colleagues, fund and resource efforts, and affect enterprise-wide revolution from the middle-outward.

But here’s the game-changer:  top-down support and focus, their work can accelerate innovation and transformation.

It’s critical that executives prioritize the identification of their renegades and deviants and empower them to contribute toward surviving and thriving in an era of digital Darwinism.

Once you do, prepare to formalize innovation and transformation programs to bring everyone and everything together under a formal digital Darwinism program:

  1. Set the vision: Develop and articulate an official vision for the organization, associated innovation programs, and the initiatives that need to be led by  intraprenuers and change agents  – and ensure everyone understand their roles part of the future.
  2. Seek moonshots: Borrowing from Google’s “Moonshot” program, establish goals that are otherwise unattainable today to solve.
  3. Create a roadmap: Work with intrapreneurs and change agents to identify problems and opportunities – then prioritize efforts against a short-to-long-term roadmap
  4. Explore outside areas for investment and experimentation: Examine trends, startups, experts, and investors to formalize partnerships that work toward the roadmap and moonshots.
  5. Define the innovation agenda: Formalize programs, establish goals, assign stakeholder roles, define accountability and responsibility, set metrics, and establish communication and reporting protocols.
  6. Modernize the workforce: Identify gaps in resident expertise and what’s needed. Partner with HR to establish training programs to retrain your workforce where needed, and determine hiring priorities to modernize recruitment efforts to appeal to desired candidates.
  7. Build a support system: Teach new skills. Incentivize change. Reward new behavior. Create a culture of innovation.

Remember: There’s no going back to business as usual if you want to compete for the future.

Change is difficult, scary and threatening. For the most part, corporate cultures are risk-averse, political, and rife with human dynamics, models and policies that hinder or dissuade innovation and transformation.  But like all forms of evolution, digital Darwinism will only continue. Intrapreneurs and change agents might come across as disruptive in the organization and it’s natural to manage them against existing protocols. But the disruption they introduce isn’t disobedience, it’s a rebellion against convention for the sake of convention. If nothing else, that seemingly-disruptive behavior is a signal that these are the people you need to deploy in your transformation programs.

Change happens. Digital Darwinism does not wait. Change starts with you. It gains momentum and has an impact because you empower others not just to lead, but to create other leaders in the march toward progress.

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