By: Chris White, managing director of the University of Michigan's Center for Positive Organizations
Photo: Yevhenii Chornii
There is a huge opportunity cost embedded in our highly bureaucratic organizations. Consider a story that Milan Samani, founder of the Intrapreneur Lab, shared with me recently:
A group of senior employees at a big pharmaceutical company saw an alternative use for a drug normally used for cosmetic surgery (it also worked as type of local anesthetic). Management were not interested in exploring these alternate uses so the team left, started their own company, received VC backing, and became very successful. The only loser was the original company — who lost a potential business-line, some high performing talent, and use of a technology that was 'on their doorstep.'
Is there an alternative to hemorrhaging innovation out of the company? Short answer: yes.
By supporting the intrapreneurs — those who navigate organizations to create positive change, even when they do not have formal authority — companies can foster innovation, both advancing their bottom line objectives and, often, having desirable social or environmental impacts. Furthermore, this unlocking of ideas and energy reflects higher employee engagement, and can translate to retention of top talent.
In an intrapreneur-friendly environment, all kinds of people get involved. A new product development manager artfully navigating the 'corporate immune system' in pursuit of a 'better user experience' for the customer (i.e. selling more product). The sustainability executive works with scrap, grit, and dedication on a social impact project, unsure of its future viability. The team manager develops new ways of working to bring unprecedented levels of dignity, excitement, and performance to the workplace. In positive organizations such as these, innovation bubbles up from all angles.
"The right mindset, skillset, and toolset are the starting points to actually create viable, profitable ventures that create social value in overlooked and unimagined ways," says Samani. "Some of these are the same as an entrepreneur, but many are quite unique. Processes and structures can be developed that actively foster this capability."
So what can you do to get started in selling your ideas internally? In Changing Your Company From the Inside Out, Jerry Davis and I highlighted four levers to pull when trying to create positive change without authority.
A great idea pushed at the wrong time is unlikely to get traction. Conversely, a counterintuitive idea can be successful if the timing is right. Look for shifts in leadership priorities, which create an urgent need for new solutions. Your goal, like a skilled dancer, is to position your idea to be carried along by the momentum of the system — not swim against the tide.
Make the case for your idea using the language and strategic priorities of your company. In many corporate cultures, making the ideas sound like a natural evolution rather than a radical departure, can reduce resistance to adoption. Your goal is to create a mental image that activates the support of important allies, but does not trigger alarm bells for potential resistors.
Take time to map the decision makers for your idea, and the influence system around them. What are their priorities? How will you need to adapt your case to each of them in order to be effective? Your goal is to build support along the way, making the eventual decision a straightforward signoff.
Look for what Center for Positive Organizations Faculty Associate Sue Ashford describes as "sensible solutions" to organize your initiative. Maybe it is a smaller pilot program to manage risk smartly. Maybe there is a previously successful program that can be largely replicated. Your goal is to make this an easy idea to grasp as rollout begins.
What other levers do you pull to get your ideas heard — and adopted — in your company?