Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Intrapreneur's Dilemma

I was the other day at the World Economic Forum Media and Entertainment industry network meeting in New York. It was a really valuable meeting with lots of very enlightening discussions on the future of the media industry in these innovative times.

Here is a thought that is relevant for the present challenge of the media industry. It is generally valid, not only for the media industry, and applies to all people and traditional organisations who are seeking to innovate. Let's call it 'The Intrepreneur's Dilemma'. An 'intrapreneur' is an entrepreneur within an organization. Here goes:

When someone tries to innovate within a traditional organization,
few will understand what he/she is doing,
but everybody will understand who is a trouble-maker.

After the innovation has been embraced by the organization,
few will remember who started it,
but everybody will remember who was a trouble-maker.

This is the dilemma encountered by many intrapreneurs -
they risk punishment for success.

Organizations that want to be innovative need to find solutions to the intrapreneur's dilemma and its consequences, if they don't wish to set negative examples that will scare off people from intrapreneurship. Here is an example: as long as a new project is of little impact and not well understood, the intrapreneur will be fighting for its continuation while others may ignore its existence or perhaps wonder why it should be allowed to steal attention from the more important core activities. Once a project has impact and receives recognition, incumbents within the organization will want to influence or control it. People may reason that 'a project as important as this one should not be run by a trouble-maker'. This situation requires a constructive interaction between a skilled intrapreneur and an enlightened organizational leadership. A good innovation system within the organization may help provide solutions, but I don't think it can replace individual savvy and diplomatic skills.

If anybody who reads this has a good story to illustrate the 'intrapreneur's dilemma', or knows of descriptions of similar phenomena under different names, send me an email or leave comments and links here below.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I really liked your post as you are spot on this dilemma. For your information, I am the founder and chief facilitator of INTRAP which is a network for people working on the intersection of leadership and innovation. Check out

We have many intrapreneurs in the network and I know many of them have been labelled as trouble-makers.

Let me know if you would like to get in touch with such people and I will make the introductions.

Best regards,


David Nordfors said...

Hi Stefan!

Thanks for your comment on the 'intrapreneur's dilemma'. It will be great if people want to share their experiences on this topic here in the of comments. And if anyone has any good advice on how to handle the dilemma - that will be very interesting!

If there are enough good comments, I will try to summarize them in a new post.



Marc said...

Hi David,
My gut reaction to this is that the notion is really more The Intrapreneur’s Snare, namely the (possibily irresistible) tendency to blame others for "not getting it.” A species of self-pity, or blaming others for one’s own failings, if you will. Granted that some organizations are more open to new ideas and approaches than others, and granted too that bosses range from sunny paternal types, judiciously encouraging all good ideas to grow and pruning back only the bad ones, to assholes (cf. Bob Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule) , how often does it really happen, if you exercise the individual savvy and diplomatic skills that you point out are irreplacable, that an innovator will arouse only or even mostly resistance or hostility and be known as a “troublemaker”?
The key to avoiding the snare would be to be aware of it and to always first ask whether one’s own savvy, diplomacy, and realpolitik have been up to snuff.
I called the snare possibly irresistible because if you have, in fact, produced something innovative, then it's hard to resist the notion that you're smarter than others, and that any indifference or hostility you arouse as you go about your merry, creative way, airing the latest product of your sterling mind, can only be due to inferiority of character or even actual malevolence in the souls of those hemming you in. Whereas the truth may be that indifference is due to the nature of life outside the nursery, where nobody owes you anything, and hostility is due to your arrogating to yourself the right of other people to judge the value of your product. It’s some kind of paradox—people do need to be told what to think (by critics, by innovation bloggers, by intrapreneurs internally marketing their ideas), but they also need to come to their own judgment. So maybe a troublemaker intrepreneur is one who either doesn’t try hard enough on some level—or who who tries too hard, neglecting the sovereignty of others' judgment. No matter how good you are at the art of woo, people have got to make up their own minds. Or maybe a troublemaker at one job would be a prized team player at another. It’s not easy…
Marc Lemay

David Nordfors said...

Thanks Marc for your intelligent and eloquent remark. The 'Intrapreneur's snare' of sinking into self-pity and blaming ones shortcomings on others is certainly valid. It certainly has overlap with the 'intrapreneur's dilemma'. But are they identical?

While the 'intrapreneur's dilemma' refers to intrapreneurs being outmaneuvered, the 'intrapreneur's snare' refers to intrapreneurs not being good enough at maneuvering. They refer to the same thing, but from different points of view - which is significant, because they locate the problem in different places. One in the organisation, the other in the intrapreneur.

Both are valid, sometimes even in the same case. There are difficult people who have been behind the start of brilliant innovations within traditional organisations, and who were left behind, because they were not good enough at moving the initiative forward. There are also gatekeepers within organisations, who first tried to stop something from happening, and then got the credit when it happened, after outmaneuvering the originator.

This adds to the complexity of the challenge of innovation in a traditional organisation.

Anonymous said...

Dan Maydan said...
Hi David

A very interesting discussion on the intrepreneur's dilemma.

There are many variables to this dilemma which are mostly dependent on the phase of development of the company, its type of business ,its size and most important culture. If you take companies like Google or 3-M most probably you will not find the situation you describe.These companies are never the less a minority and most other mid and large size companies will act the way you describe in your article. A true entrepreneur will most probably not last and will find his way to a more suitable place including start ups.

Last but not least you should remember the phases of a project.

1 enthusiastic
2 working very hard and complete dedication
3 disillusion
4 success
5 departure of key contributors
6 praise for the non participant


Unknown said...

Hi David,

Thanks for starting this interesting discussion. Intrapreneurs sure do have a challenging time within established organisaitons. In fact, it doesnt really take long for the "establishment" to set in - even young organsiaitons (5 yrs old) have shown that the established way of doing things is no easy to challenge.

My experience has shown that
a)entrepreneurs (those that have been sucessful at start ups) find it very hard to innovate within an organisaiton
b)for those that want to, its important to have buy-in from key stakeholders (board, manager, peers and others). Buy-in should not merely be surfacial - but genuine - for what the intrepreneur is trying to do.
c) Those that are really serious are more concerned with the impact and making it work - than whether its happening within an established organisaiton, will go on their own and make it happen....


Anonymous said...

When I was working at Varian, a group developed the first practical helium-neon laser, headed by Herb Dwight. His manager derided the work as useless (i.e. he was a troublemaker). Herb took his group outside the company and created SpectraPhysics. He went from intrapreneur to entrepreneur. SpectraPhysice became a world laser powerhouse.

Later, at SpectraPhysics, another troublemakersuggested high-power, kilowatt-level lasers (the
helium-neon laser were milliwatt level) but management rebuffed him. He took a group out of the company and created Coherent Radiation.


Your piece on the perils of intrapreneurship is right on.


Anonymous said...

Hi David:

I felt so identified with your "Intrapreneur's Dilemma" that you have inspired my new blog post:

Basically, I'd like to explore how we turn the "Trouble Maker" role into a positive and strategic role - what I call "Strategic Irritant"...

I am in Menlo Park, btw. Care for coffee sometime?


Paul To

John Knight said...

Classic. Great discussion, I've been an intrapreneur for a long time, both by action/word and deed, as well as by title (Innovation Manager to be specific). The whole challenge can be very dependant on culture, timing and other environmental conditions within a company or simply within a small team. A company can opening embrace Innovation but still foster legacy culture and individuals who don't appreciate and REMEMBER the trouble-makers. My approach to this is similar to what the American Continental Army did with Yankee Doodle-Dandy. I adopted the moniker myself: I amended my title: Innovation Manager, Change Agent and Trouble Maker.

Carlione said...

Hi everyone,

This topic is very interesting because it talks about the situations I live at work everyday.

My story starts when I obtained a degree from the MBET (Master of Business Entrepreneurship Program) in the University of Waterloo three years ago. My goal is to be an Entrepreneur.

After that investment I didn't have money for a start-up. So, I decided to go back to the company I was working before I took the program. I came to the company in a different role, working for the Corporate. Since I arrived to the company my goal was to deliver results and add value in an intrapreneur way.

Unfortunately, the barriers in the big corporation were difficult. Mergers, new bosses, new policies, procedures..etc.

I'm still in the company, and I have been fighting everyday for my goals, and the way my Manager thinks of me is "Trouble Maker".

In the last five months I've been dealing with tasks for support. This role gave me the opportunity to be the person to go in case of problem and solve it from the root. So, I guess that's what an Intrapreneur do first... quick wins.

Recently I talked to Management about the possibility to go back to a role where I can add more value. I'll see if I can get there.

Joe Lerner said...

Whether a dilemma or, as Marc says, a snare, the outcomes are often similar, and act as a disincentive for those who seek to show their accountability to an organization through contributing new ideas.

My own experience is with a hospital in one of Manitoba's largest regional health authorities where many of us were taught accountability based on the excellent model developed by Mark Samuel.

Yet, a few years later, by striving to be accountable in the way I was trained, and for trying to be innovative and thus more effective, my boss fired me from my chaplaincy position. As a charming preface to the firing interview, she, who had also taken and said she had liked the accountability training, stated: "Don't ask me any questions."

So I still don't know why I was fired - though the hospital has since paid me a nice sum in settlement.

The moral of the story is that organizations even go so far as to spend thousands of dollars on training designed to make people better intrapreneurs, and then in the circumstance forget/ignore all the training that they have purchased so dearly. Needless to say, as in the case with the hospital where I worked, these organizations fail also to be congruent with their lovely, covered-by-plexiglass visions, missions, and values statements that are prominently fastened to public walls.

The solutions range from having staff to stick to the staid routines and swallow any urge to be creative or more effective, to enforcing a rule that all managers must encourage innovation, and be able to document that they have come performance review time.

Daly de Gagne,
though Blogspot may insist on using my nom de plume Richard Bellamy.

Ardarian said...

Hi David,

It's a fantastic post and it's a pity that I found it so late on the web.

I would like to publish this post in my blog in Turkey (of course referring to this web site and you) , just would like to ask if this is OK for you.

Many thanks

David Nordfors said...

Ardarian - thanks, please feel free to translate and re-publish. Just link to the original post :-)

RalfLippold said...

Hi David,

the intrapreneur's dilemma has "haunted" me in my past workplaces every time when the bosses had set the map of action. Whereas in the time, e.g. setting up the BMW Plant Leipzig with lots of new and unknown processes with the notion to create a functioning factory producing BMW at highest quality from day One, where there was no fixed plan of execution the intrapreneur was very welcome.

In 2008 I moved out of the firm, as politics amongst departments became more and more the standard way of functioning, instead of focusing on the overall output and value creation.

Quite some installations, initial thoughts and innovations can be still seen in the plant that have my handwriting (and there is still some to come, presently some way "hidden" as people have no 20% off-time experiencing rule as at Google - yet).

My advise for intrapreneurs is: document your work and make yourself visible (even at the extend that at the very moment you do so, there is no big project yet rolled out - the time will come and if you don't do that today your name will be overwritten by the others who make your idea into their ideas!)

RalfLippold said...

Hi David - Your blogpost on the life of intrapreneurs hasn't lost any power. Remember quite well my time at large Germany premium car maker where I initiated dozens of initiatives. They looked useless in the beginning yet the only goal for me was to make the life for workers easier and at the same time deliver higher quality (seen from the customer's perspective) with less resources.

Starting improvements in a stage where no real pressure is felt, you quickly become the "trouble maker", "dark seer" in the group.

Appreciation is seldom shown to the intrapreneurs, because they see developments in a larger sense for which others, bosses and peers, often don't have the view for.

Good to see when the started projects have become grown up and running - only a pity when nobody connects its start with the true initiator and innovator.

Gifford Pinchot said...

There is no question that a prime characteristic of a successful intrapreneur is persistence -- keeping going despite frequent "no"s and commands to stop. The cure is not an innovation system or a perfectly mannered intrapreneur, the solution is a close relationship with several sponsors. Sponsors do not have to be your boss or even in your chain of command. They do have to have the courage and the clout to protect you and to see that you are rewarded. Good sponsors are rare. Companies that have them and protect and advance them are the innovators

Gifford Pinchot: Author of the book, Intrapareneuring