Intrapreneur Playbook: 3 Stages to Achieving True Buy-In

Both intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs are catalysts for true change. And since change is disruptive by its very nature, everyone must respect the impact that true change can have on an organization. One big difference between intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs is that intrapreneurs must care about the infrastructure they are disturbing. While an entrepreneur can go big or go bust based on their individual risk tolerance, an intrapreneur must treat the existing organizational structure around them delicately. This means that, for an intrapreneur, achieving buy-in for an idea is key.

People often ask me how to achieve true buy-in. I am not talking about lip service buy-in that falls short at the finish line, but actual buy-in that comes with true, lasting change. True buy-in is tied to budget, time and a real chance at success.

In my experience, true buy-in is best achieved through three stages: form a team, find a champion, and achieving true buy-in from a decision maker. The goal is to continuously widen your sphere of influence, starting with an idea and expanding in a calculated way, out to wider spheres and ultimately to acceptance:


Innovation starts with an idea. Although our minds often jump to a solution, multiple solutions for each opportunity might exist. Focus on the opportunity and not the solution.

Think through your idea so that you get to the root of it. Go through the Five Whys to help you get to the core. That is, ask yourself "Why?" five times, or until you feel you've uncovered the core of the opportunity. Once you are confident that you have identified the root problem/opportunity, create a strawman, or rough draft of the opportunity that you have discovered.

Next, talk to a handful of folks you trust and whose opinion you respect. Get feedback on the root problem/opportunity. Ask for their input. Do they agree that this is a problem? What things haven't you considered? What angles have you missed? Is this a real opportunity worth spending effort on?

Then, find one or two people that want in on the idea. This will be your core team. Qualities to look for in your core team:

  • Passion - each member should have a personal reason for wanting to dedicate some of their time to the idea.
  • Trust - each member should have a high level of trust in all other members
  • Collaboration - the Core Team should be highly collaborative and iterative in your approach to progressing your idea.

Document, document and document. Write down your thoughts. Use any medium you feel comfortable with: MicroSoft Word, Trello board, Google Docs, Index cards or Lean Canvas.

Stage 1 Objectives:

  • Identify your goal - What desired outcome(s) are you shooting for. Create SMART goals whenever possible.
  • Create success criteria - what will success look like 3, 6 and 12 months out
  • Time and Budget needs - what time and budget do you think you'll need and from who
  • Embrace change - be realistic that innovation is fluid and things will likely change continuously as the idea develops

Once you and your team are confident in your idea, you are ready to widen your sphere of influence. Now it's time to find a Champion.

A champion is someone within your organization that has respect and authority. A supervisor, a mentor, or a manager will do. This person does not need to be the ultimate decision-maker or the budget authority. However, the Champion should have the ear of the decision-maker.

Your goal in Stage 2 is to achieve a "Small, Visible Win" with your Champion. Your Champion's role is to help you achieve a Small,Visible Win and help prepare your idea for presentation to the decision-maker. The Champion should be able to give you advice on how the decision-maker make decisions, and how to present your idea in the best light for best chance of approval.

If you work for a smaller firm, the Champion and the decision-maker may be the same individual. If your company is really small, the champion may be on your core team. That's ok.

For example, a project team I worked with was teaching two developers how to pair program. An intrapreneur on the team wanted all of the 20 developers to adopt a love for pair programming. He created pair programming games and offered the one-hour game to anyone interested during their lunch hour. Folks were peering over their seats to see what all the excitement about. Ten developers joined in the game and the interest in pair programming was born in these ten developers. This cost minimal time and money, thus is was small. The excitement was seen by people outside the participants, thus is was visible.

Stage 2 Objectives:
  • Achieve a Small, Visible Win
  • Document your Small, Visible Win
  • Review Stage 1 objectives (goals, success criteria, time and budget) and adjust as necessary
And, the final Stage 2 Objective is to Set the stage for Stage 3:
  • Identify your "Ask" - What specifically are you Asking the decision maker for? Time? Money? People? External resources? Office space? Other people's time?
  • Know how your decision maker likes to receive information. Communicate like an ambulance (911 is written backwards so that it can be seen in driver's rear view mirros). Craft a proposal that your decision-maker will receive. Does the person like bullet points, verbal info, numbers, fuzzy information, what's in it for them?
  • Gather data - gather any supporting data prior to sharing your idea with a decision-maker.
  • List 2-3 reasons why this is personally important to you.
  • Suggest two or three ways to solve the problem or take advantage of the opportunity.

Once you feel good about your idea, it's time to present it to a decision-maker.

Keep the conversation focused on the opportunity. Make sure your champion is right there with you. Know your decision-maker. Does he/she like lunch meetings, coffee, long meetings, short meetings, phone calls?

Stage 3 Objectives:
  • Identify with your decision-maker how they can hold you accountable.
  • Ask for action items or next steps. Assign an owner to each, and due dates. For example, you can say to your decision-maker: I want X, and you want Y. If I can get you Y, can I get permission to do X for 3 months? If X is everyone to pair and Y is software with 15 percent fewer defects, then you can ask the decision-maker to allow pairing for three months if a 15 percent fewer defect rate can be measured monthly. By doing this, you carve a win/win path.
  • Document the agreement - following the presentation of your idea to a decision-maker, follow up with an email, stating "Here's what I believe we just agreed to. Please let me know if I've gotten anything wrong or missed anything."

Intrapreneurs typically fail for one of these three reasons: Timing, Team, and Viability. If any one of these factors is off, your idea can lose steam. Be prepared to identify if you need to pivot, change the team, or try again later.

And remember, it's ok to give up on an idea. Know when not to throw good money after bad. And keep up that intrapreneurial spirit!