Congrats: you see a way for your core passion around changing the world to intersect with what your company is already doing — or could start to do. Maybe it’s a new product, a new market, or a new training or process within the company that will make a positive difference in the world. But how do you get support for your idea? Here are five key steps, sourced from top experts in the world of social intrapreneurship.
Some of this material is adapted with permission from “The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide to Corporate Changemakers”, published by SustainAbility (a think tank and advisory firm); and The Intrapreneur’s Toolkit, published by the League of Intrapreneurs (a global learning community of social intrapreneurs; learn more and join here).
1. Make the business case
“What’s important is to really take a look at the organization as a whole, understand its culture and values, and look for ways to make the connection between your passion project and existing culture,” says Lisa Estrada, an alumna of Marylhurst University’s MBA program who intrapreneured her way into a new role as sustainability manager for the city of Peoria, AZ.
A robust business case and rigorous research are key ingredients to gaining traction for your intrapreneurial idea.
Showing how your initiative will support explicit corporate objectives will help to unlock support, financial and otherwise. Start by listing all the ways your idea will create value for the company by:
- increasing revenue
- lowering costs
- improving quality
- enhancing reputation
And don’t forget the societal business case. Make sure there is clear value that can be legitimated by third-party societal stakeholders (communities, non-profits, or public institutions).
Assess Pain Points
What are your company’s pain points? How do they get measured/what are their performance indicators? Companies invest large amounts of money in addressing their pain points — be it supplier security, product quality, reputation and employee retention. Connecting these pain points with your solution will create a stronger business case for funding your work.
2. Tell a good story
“No matter how seemingly rational an argument you make for your idea, the person who is doing the deciding will be using gut instinct and hunch 95 percent of the time,” writes the League of Intrapreneurs. Your job is to make it easy for people to believe this idea can work. “A critical challenge is getting colleagues to make a perceptual shift from today’s reality to tomorrow’s possibility,” says SustainAbility. One way to do this is by showing them how something similar has been done before in other contexts. Storytelling, images, and prototypes also help people to grasp the opportunity. Specific strategies include:
Draft a headline
This is a simple way to help others envision the future. What would the feature article be about your work on the cover of a magazine? Mock it up and share it with others.
Introduce a protagonist
Identify a stakeholder in your project and use their journey to tell the story. For example, rather than doing a data dump about the health benefits of a new medicine, tell the story of Raji, a young mother without access to this medicine, and what life will be like if the medicine becomes available and what will happen if it doesn’t.
Change the setting
Consider having a conversation in a unique or memorable setting. Rather than pitch someone in a meeting room, try to go for a walk with them or visit a museum together. Getting people outside of the office may encourage their receptivity to your ideas because they will be in a more relaxed and open frame of mind.
3. Find the right partners
There’s no getting around it: in order to get support for your idea you have to play the political game, says Hans Balmaekers, director at Innov8rs, which convenes conferences for intrapreneurs around the world. You’ll need to network both internally and externally.
Map Your Influencers
Start with pen and paper and some post-its. Print out your company’s organizational charts (if you can find them).
- Who are the key influencers?
- Who are the mavens?
- Who are the connectors?
- Are they on your side or against you?
Next, ask how you can align your initiative with the primary priorities of key decision makers. Be realistic about the pressures that others are under; the more you can sell your initiative from their point of view, the better.
Find a Godparent for your project
Almost by definition, intrapreneurs are dependent on more senior coworkers to authorize their proposals. Best bet: recruit a “godparent,” someone in senior leadership who trusts you, Spitzeck says. To find your godparent, keep your ears open and look at the CVs of people in senior management or board positions. If they’re engaged with volunteerism, on the board of an NGO, or involved with a professional organization relevant to your cause (or have been in the past), that can be a hint that this person might be open to talking about your idea. Keep in mind: in order to gain their trust, you must have a track record of delivering on corporate priorities, Spitzeck says. “You need to know how the corporate immune systems works.”
“Don’t get too hung up on getting the support of top management, but remember that companies do tend to respond energetically to signals from the CEO and other leaders,” writes SustainAbility.
Engage supporters broadly within the organization
“Time and again, intrapreneurs cite small coalitions of people who ‘get it’ as key to their success,” SustainAbility found. And finding alignment with different business units will strengthen your base of support. Diverse champions can help think through how your project connects with and supports the organization’s broader vision. Plus having multiple cheerleaders is wise in the long-term, Spitzeck says: “If your main godparent joins another organization, that can be devastating, so engage broadly.”
Look for external partners
External partners can help to defray financial risk, in particular. But partnership isn’t just about money. External partners can support your projects in other ways, such as offering expertise, legitimacy, and trusted relationships. “For [intrapreneurs] who are limited in resources, partnerships with third parties — such as universities — can provide useful avenues for incubating new thinking and initiatives,” SustainAbility reports.
4. Launch a pilot
No idea is worth anything without results. As Baelmakers puts it, “Don’t just go to someone high up with 27 PowerPoint slides promising $100 million in revenue in three years without having a prototype that works.”
The quicker you get some kind of tangible win or example, the better. It’s ok not to know exactly what you’re doing here. It’s more important to get started, try things, and learn. “As an intrapreneur, no one expects you to be perfect,” says Letitia Webster, Global VP of Corporate Sustainability at VF Corp, which owns The North Face and Timberland, among other brands. She started in marketing at The North Face and has been an intrapreneur through most of her career. “What they expect is that you’re aware of your issues and challenges and that you’re making progress where it’s important.”
Don’t take on on too much too quickly. Small, start-up endeavors seem to be the first jumping- off point for any intrapreneur. “Incubating an initiative away from the business mainstream can provide a degree of freedom and clarity of perspective,” SustainAbility reports. “Most intrapreneurs start with pilot tests in specific markets before going big. This enables experimentation and learning, potentially minimizing risks.”
Make sure you’re funded
“Enthusiasts often leave the financial details until later — sometimes too late,” SustainAbility found. Make sure you have a sensible budget. Without it, people you need to help you won’t take you seriously.
5. Keep going
“One key thing is you need is to be stubborn,” Spitzeck says. “If you think you have a good idea, most corporations will do anything to kill your innovation. But with every critique, with every obstacle, you need to learn, to become better in your implementation. One intrapreneur I know told me, ‘I went so many times with a better argument that eventually the stock of no’s they had ran out.’”
Part of your job, Spitzeck says, is to prove to the organization that your idea is worthy despite the obstacles. “It’s a myth to think the organization ought to provide you with everything you need in order to be an intrapreneur. People need to understand that organizations, even ones that say they want to foster innovation, usually don’t,” he says. There will be obstacles, it will be hard; consider that part of your learning journey.
Articulate and stick to your core vision
We’ve all heard of great-sounding initiatives that get watered down by corporate priorities. Be clear from the start about your initiative’s non-negotiables and don’t compromise on these. In fact, clearly communicate these non-negotiables from the start and document them for future reference. This document can serve as a vision keeper for your project. Then at the first sign that your project may be adrift, call this out and raise concerns. Don’t whine about how your projects fundamentals are becoming compromised, but revisit your vision keeper document and show how things are off course — and distil concrete actions you can take to restore your project’s mission.
If you experience pushback from management, remember that management isn’t evil. They are guardians of norms that are often key to your organization’s survival. So respect their logic and decision-making — while continuously trying to influence it.
Many intrapreneurial projects take a while to pull off, if they happen at all, SustainAbility found. The journey can be emotionally challenging, so stamina is especially important. And in siloed organizations change takes longer — often much longer.
“You have to be patient enough to understand and be able to look at all of the different angles and perspectives to make sure you’re coming up with the right solutions and having the right conversations,” says VF’s Webster. “You have to allow the process to unfold and have trust that if you bring the right people together, craft the right process, and have the right questions, you will get to an answer that is robust and meaningful.”
The bottom line
Social intrapreneurship is a challenging journey, but for many people, a worthwhile one. Above all, don’t think you have to do it alone.
Over the next six months, in partnership with Marylhurst University, we’ll be releasing a series of articles all about social intrapreneurship, featuring success stories, advice from the trenches, key challenges, best practices, and more. Stay tuned to our Social Intrapreneurship channel for the latest articles, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an intrapreneurship question or success story to share.
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Rachel is Conscious Company’s former editor-in-chief. Before joining the CCM team, she worked at Backpacker and Wired magazines.