Internal entrepreneurs—driven, innovative thinkers within your organization—can take your company to the next level, but only if you give them the space they need to create and develop their ideas.
“We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.” Detective Lester Freamon, The Wire
Only the lonely
It’s easy to see how isolating that can be. As Len Schlesinger and Charlie Kiefer note at HBR.org:
[Internal entrepreneurs] report feeling quite lonely. Even though they’re surrounded by people at work, they generally don’t have brainstorming partners or even like-minded individuals inside their organization, and tell us that for support they typically rely on popular books and conferences. These can certainly be helpful but are wholly incomplete—and terrible as a substitute for human relationships.
Bring them in, set them free
1. Create challenges, not roles. Titles often come with a set of inherent proscriptions. Rather than locking a talented internal entrepreneur into a fixed role within a single department, allow them to roam, and empower them to interact as needed with multiple functions and departments. If they have to ask a superior for permission to set up a meeting with another stakeholder, you’re doing something wrong.
2. Don’t just listen. The “open door policy” is a nice idea, but it’s a half measure. To create an environment that genuinely empowers internal entrepreneurs, start with listening—and then give the speaker clear space to act. That doesn’t mean carte blanche, but it does mean giving them the resources and support to execute on their idea. Setting measurable goals and deadlines can help make their ideas palatable to senior stakeholders. Speaking of which…
“The ‘open door policy’ is a nice idea, but it’s a half measure.”
3. Provide air cover. If they’re on your team, they’re on your budget. You’ll be answerable for their success, and that should motivate you to support them when it comes to selling their ideas to the C-suite. In a study by the Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab, one internal entrepreneur reported having to spend 50 percent of his time selling his idea to internal stakeholders. Make that your job. After all, their successes will be your successes, so don’t be afraid to take a chance on a great idea.
4. Help them limit their exposure. Again, you’re taking a risk by giving an internal entrepreneur room to run. But if you’re going to see ROI on your decision, you need to help them develop their plans and projects internally without fear. One way, as the Babson study notes, is through “progressive disclosure.” Borrowed from the world of interaction design, progressive disclosure is the act of revealing information only to those who need it. In short, help them start small before spreading their ideas across the organization.
Creating a culture that allows internal entrepreneurs to come to the surface rather than sink beneath the rank-and-file can give your organization an innovative edge. Ditch the guardrails, listen, provide support and, most of all, try to stay out of their way. As Lester Freamon said, “You’d be surprised what you can get done when no one is looking over your shoulder.”
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