Five Key Tenets of Cultural Intrapreneurship

In my last article I made the distinction between structural or procedural intrapreneurship and cultural intrapreneurship. 

Structural or procedural intrapreneurship is focused on the business or product that is the outcome of an intrapreneurship initiative, while cultural intrapreneurship focuses on using intrapreneurship experiences as a tool for long-term culture change toward the future of organizations.

I promised a deeper dive into what cultural intrapreneurship looks like and how you can create such a culture in your organization.

First, though, since culture means a lot of different things to different people, let’s establish a working definition:

Culture is an “operating system”, a system of memes or ideas that determine how we operate.

Or more simply put:

“Culture is how we do things around here…”

While Culture usually refers to a group of people, when we use the Operating System metaphor, we realize, that every individual has their own cultural operating system, and that the way we behave in relationships, teams, families, organizations, nations and even this planet as a totality, the cultures we exhibit, is a result of overlays of multiple individual patterns of operating.

Unlike most of the approaches to organizational culture we have found (many of which still suffer from a rather mechanistic view of culture and the organization), our culture work with organizations starts with the individual.

Culture is personal business. Cultural intrapreneurship is even more personal.

It is up to each individual, each intrapreneur, to shape the culture of the organization.

“Innovation coming from ANYONE, ANYWHERE, ALWAYS — that is the promise of intrapreneurship done right.” (Hans Balmaekers, Intrapreneurship Conference)

To this end, here are Five Key Tenets of Cultural Intrapreneurship that we have found in our research and work across the globe that focus on making that promise come true:

  1. Purpose-driven organizations perform better
  2. Individuals need new capacities to succeed in the future of work
  3. Teams require psychological safety to perform at their best
  4. New cultural competencies are required to move ideas from signal to launch
  5. Management structures get to adapt for the future of organizations

Since these tenets contain some big words and concepts that beg to be defined in order not to be meaningless, let’s take a look at each of them in more detail.

1. Purpose-driven organizations perform better

Today the lines between purpose, organizational culture and brand are beginning to blur. 

In recent years, we have seen several cases were large, well known brands got tainted overnight when it came to light that their organizational culture was purely oriented around the purpose of making money (e.g. the Volkswagen scandal).

A clear purpose for the organization provides employees, customers and the public with a common direction and identity.

Purpose serves as a timeless anchor and guiding principle for organizational decision making on all levels.

Source: Purpose at Work, 2016 Global Report | LinkedIn and Keller, V. (2015). The Business Case for Purpose. Harvard Business Review

Study after study has shown that purpose driven organizations have higher employee engagement, and how employee engagement impacts Sales, Quality, Safety, Retention and ultimately profit and total Shareholder value

Employee engagement creates a better bottom line.

With the advent of the millennial generation, purpose through work has become a new focus. Today’s talent requires meaning in their work.

In order to attract and retain the best people, you will need to offer them the opportunity to do something that supports them in their mission to impact society.

The sweet spot for performance and engagement is when organizational purpose, individual purpose and role purpose overlap (see this talk on the Purpose Effect).

The word culture comes from agriculture. From an anthropological perspective the advent of culture designates the step when we shifted from randomly gathering what we found in nature to consciously planting seeds. The shift that occurred here is that we began to grow things on purpose.

Hence it is crucial to start any conscious effort to craft culture with a clear purpose and to connect any intrapreneurial program to the overall organizational purpose.

In a recent intrapreneurship bootcamp we developed and guided for a large multi-national organization, we did exactly that. Their purpose statement of “We make real what matters” provided the framework for the bootcamp. We started with individual purpose, dug into what mattered to the participants not as employees, but as humans, as individuals with personal passions and interests. From there, we taught them how to make what mattered to them real, developing new business models and using the company and its resources as a means to do so.

ACTION STEP: Start conversations about your organizational purpose and facilitate opportunities for your employees to discover and connect to their personal purpose. Adjust your organizational structures to support purposeful roles and ensure that each employee is operating in the sweet spot where organizational purpose, role purpose and personal purpose overlap.

2. Individuals need new capacities to succeed in the future of work

It is not by chance that in the advent of the factory, public education started. The factory required a new human: a compliant worker (who could read or write basic instructions and push and pull the right levers on the machines), and a compliant consumer (who would purchase the surplus products factories were now able to create).

Today, digitalization is yet again requiring a new human: someone who can be the creator of entire virtual factories, and someone who is stewarding our survival and prospering on this planet through conscious and responsible consumption.

Just like the factory created public education, we now need a new level of education for individuals, one that teaches them not just to think like an entrepreneur, but to be like one: someone constantly looking to launch intelligent and sustainable solutions within an ecosystem that is still defining itself.

I have written before about leadership in times of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). VUCA was once defining special situations, but has become the norm today. To succeed in such an environment, your people need new personal and interpersonal skills.

As stated above, if you want to create organizational culture, you have to not only focus on that, or on team culture, but on the individual intrapreneur — because all culture starts with the individual, and innovation starts with “i”.

If you want your employees to be truly customer focused, you have to be employee focused first— after all, they are the customers of your organization.

The key is to develop personal agency: the foundation for ownership culture. Without personal agency, there is no intrinsic motivation or ability to create the next version of your company. Intrapreneurship can strengthen that idea in the company and serve as a vessel to deliver the tools and training required for individuals to succeed in the future of work.

And as my business partner Tirza always says: “children don’t learn table manners from Powerpoint presentations, they learn them by modeling and immersing themselves in the new behaviors.”

Hence, this new level of training also has to go beyond an intellectual classroom experience. It requires active participation and immersion in a training room.

ACTION STEP: Develop programs to train high-potential intrapreneurs in new individual capacities, and encourage them to become ambassadors and trainers for their teams and business units. Be aware that current high-potentials might not necessarily be high-potential intrapreneurs and that intrapreneurship requires a different profile.

3. Teams require psychological safety to perform

Google is known for its innovation. Alphabet is beginning to model modern forms of organization that focus on a portfolio of customer value solutions with an underlying shared services layer. But more on structural things and the future of organizations at another time.

What is more interesting in this context is a study Google conducted to identify what makes a high-performing team. After much searching for patterns, they were surprised to find that who was on a team mattered less than how the team members interacted, structured their work, and viewed their contributions.

They found the following five core traits that create a high-performing team:

  • Clear Purpose
  • Culture of Commitment
  • Clear Roles and Responsibilities
  • Ability to make a Personal Contribution
  • and most importantly: Psychological safety

Psychological Safety is about feeling okay about sharing your full and authentic self. It is about feeling seen and respected, having the ability to speak up and share, and knowing that whatever an individual says or contributes will not be held or used against them.

Most corporate environments are far from realizing psychological safety…

People are afraid of losing their job, people are afraid of others manipulating the corporate hierarchy and sawing on their chair legs, people are afraid of being shut down. This is especially true for women, who — to this day — are often treated like second-class corporate citizens. Think just for a moment of the tremendous waste of intelligence and insight merely because women tend to get overlooked and don’t feel safe to speak up and share.

ACTION STEP: Pay attention to psychological safety in your company. View meetings from that lens. Pay attention to the silent ones and engage them in conversation around whether they feel comfortable contributing. Train team members in relating and collaborating and moving from transacting toward co-evolving.

4. New cultural competencies are required to move ideas from signal to launch

If you wish to thrive in the future, innovation cannot be a one-off event. It is not about that one new business model or the one new product. It is about continuously improving everything you do.

Just like today’s software, tomorrow’s companies will be in perpetual beta.

For that, new competencies are required on individual, team and organizational levels.

Organizations, teams and individuals will have to create space for signal, for new information to come in, live in possibility and entertain even remote notions, and have teams that are able to uplevel each other’s ideas and explore their feasibility together.

There also has to be a clear culture of commitment (as mentioned above in the key success factors Google found for high performing teams). Commitment creates clarity, removes anxiety and provides a solid foundation for interaction. Being committed to a problem vs. a specific solution will also provide you with the stamina and ability to pivot in order to make it through challenging times.

In order to not just be creative, but also productive, you will also need to create a culture of intelligence, where individuals have the passion to solve challenges effectively and create efficient processes, are clever about creating and accessing resources and using them wisely, and ultimately focus on launching.

ACTION STEP: Review your current culture based on these cultural competencies. Understand where breakdowns occur. Are you creative and generating tons of new ideas or averse to doing things in new ways? Are you able to take new ideas and launch new prototypes or get stuck in analysis paralysis? Train your teams in these cultural competencies and create structural space for bringing new ideas to fruition.

5. Management structures get to adapt for the future of organizations

Just like today’s businesses look very different from pre-industrial times, the future of businesses will look quite different than it has over the last century. With digitalization come new ways of operating and new opportunities.

In a simple view, a business is a black box with inputs and outputs. In the box are processes that can increasingly be replaced by automated processes, artificial intelligence and digital agents.

In the future, humans will no longer be required to engage in mindless, repetitive work. That is what machines are for and what the promise of digitalization holds.

This also means that new structures are required:

  • New ways to budget
  • New compensation and benefit models
  • New models for integrating customer value solutions into the existing core business and shared services
  • New decision making matrices
  • New collaborative and participatory models

There are a few ideas out there that are testing the grounds for these new models. Systems like holacracy and other sociocracy derivatives have been in the press for a while. Their success depends on the other factors mentioned above as the structural changes have to go hand in hand with individual development. Slapping in a model like holacracy without training individuals to succeed in that new world will ultimately lead to failure.

What exactly your future management structure will look like is uncertain, what is important is that you realize that it will look different than the current structures and that you have to be willing to create contained experiments to surface new solutions.

ACTION STEP: Learn about new models of participatory organization. Set up small experiments with maverick teams, train them in the required personal skills, clear their paths from bureaucracy, and see what structures make sense, complement your environment and serve your purpose.

Holistic Solutions are Key

There are no panaceas. There are no one-size fits all models. To succeed in the future, you will need a multi-modal approach that is flexible, agile, and allows you to create a truly learning organization.

Digitalization requires more than structural changes. We are indeed in the midst of a revolution in business. Tomorrow’s world will look quite different than today’s and there is no right way of approaching it.

The only path that makes sense is YOUR path. 

Start with a clear purpose and experiment with ever new ways of addressing it. Provide the environment for individuals to unfold their personal purpose, give them the training and create the psychological safety for them to explore new solutions and their authentic contribution. Develop new cultural competencies in your organization and be flexible in how you structure yourself.

The future holds a lot of promise while there are plenty of challenges in our world.

To create meaningful contributions as individuals, teams and organizations ask not what the planet can do for your organization, but what your organization can do for each individual and for society as a whole.


This article was originally developed as a guest blog for the upcoming Intrapreneurship Conference Silicon Valley.

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