Can Intrapreneurship Drive Employee Engagement?

What is intrapreneurship? How does intrapreneurship impact employee engagement? Can it create empowering outcomes where employees can be valued for their contributions? Is it ripe for every culture, or what is the balance that needs to be struck? Perhaps you have been an in intrapreneurship culture, or have worked for a manager that was an intrapreneur. How have your experiences with your managers over your career shaped you personally?

I would say that I am an amalgam of every manager I have ever had, good and bad. I am either a victim or beneficiary of management trends and training (depends on your perspective). Like any private organization, government agencies have their share of great, mediocre and bad managers – and that spectrum is as broad as the line we allow ourselves to straddle as we lead our employees to full engagement.

While physical workspace trends tend to be cyclical; from traditional, to cubicle farms, to open space and back to traditional – management trends sometimes get mired down in the specific culture and nature of business. Management norms have been fairly consistent throughout the years. To this end, a lot of organizations, and in my case, Government agencies tend to be slow to adopt what might be considered “flighty” and coloring outside the management lines.

Intrapreneurship: Ownership as an Incentive

Some years ago, I discovered a trend that I would loved to have employed in my little corner of the world – Intrapreneurship.

As defined within Google, Intrapreneurship is:

A relatively recent concept that focuses on employees of a company that have many of the attributes of entrepreneurs. An intrapreneur is someone within a company that takes risks in an effort to solve a given problem.

According to Forbes, Intrapreneurs “exhibit the traits of confidence and humility – not the maverick behavior of corporate hotshots” – as a manger, who wouldn’t want to have that kind of employee? What’s more, they are the people that take the ideas we plant and then grow them from seedlings of random thoughts to mighty oaks of implementation. They aren’t driven by a fear of failure, quite the opposite – they aren’t afraid to fail, they are confident and know that there is great success even in failure – lessons are learned and catalogued for next time, they simply don’t quit growing! And as they grow, they remain engaged for the next opportunity.

The best manager I ever had was textbook Intrapreneur, and he actually cultivated that kind of management mindset into his subordinate managers. In fact, as middle managers, we were fortunate to have the freedom to explore intrapreneurship, get engaged ourselves, and subsequently model that for our subordinate managers. How great was that?  Having this type of ownership and input within in a government culture?

Strangely enough, not everyone thought it was great. In fact, a lot of people looked at the entire concept with suspicion and doubt. While many flourished in this type of culture, many others flailed.

I couldn’t understand why.

Intrapreneurship: Empowerment plus opportunity equals engagement

When you think of successful companies that promote intrapreneurship (for example, Google and DreamWorks), it is so much more than employees using creativity and confidence to make magic – it is a value held by an organization to promote and encourage a kind of proprietorship of ones’ own work.

According to Russell Bowyer in an piece titled “Intrapreneurship Definitions – Characteristics of and Intrapreneur”  DreamWorks encourages all staff, regardless of their job title, to be a part of the film-making process. This is encouraged by asking employees to put forward their own ideas. In fact, they offer employees free classes to learn how to pitch their ideas directly to executives.

Think about that kind of ownership!  That kind of empowerment!

Think about the statement that makes to your employees about their worth within the organization?! Are you offering these opportunities for engagement? How about you, are you feeling as if you are being afforded these types of opportunities to keep you engaged?

Google has taken this a step further, according the Intraprenuership Institute website and Intraprenuership expert Howard E. Haller, Ph.D – Google goes so far as to offer an Innovation Time Off intrapreneurship program. This program empowers and encourages Google’s employees to spend 20% of their work time on projects that interest them, and those they think will benefit Google and their customers. Google also has The Entrepreneur in Residence program which encourages ideas and fosters constructive input which helps not only the employee, but also helps Google thrive.

So if leveraging this kind of culture helps both the employee and the organization, as evidenced by employee engagement, why isn’t it the norm?

The Intrapreneurship trap, can ownership and employee engagement be sustained?

According to another Forbes article, Jesse Lipson believes that Intrapreneurship is actually a myth, something that cannot be sustained due to bureaucratic norms. Like it or not, bureaucracy exists – something I understand all too well working for a Government agency. And while it may not be a romantic notion, some bureaucracy is necessary, a byproduct of policies and processes fostered by mistakes made in the past.

So where is the middle ground? Where is that balance that empowers the intrapreneur while still enforcing the natural byproduct of growth and success, a level of necessary bureaucracy?

I believe that middle ground can be created by knowing and understanding your peers, the leaders above you, and perhaps most important, the leaders below you. You see, when we appreciate and celebrate innovative ideas and give employees the space to incubate these ideas, we afford them opportunities to have a sense of ownership, a legacy to leave that says, “I was here”. We see this all the time, even in the day-to-day policies we operate under, somewhere along the way, an innovator (or innovators) created and implemented those policies.

We know that some ideas are cost prohibitive, or cross lines that we simply shouldn’t cross in our particular organization, and yes, some will circumvent policies that have been in place for years. We know that sometimes the answer to an idea pitch will have to be no, yet, you could still create a safe place to encourage employees to keep on engaging, keep on sharing their ideas…a place where innovation is rewarded.

Think about this; what if you created an atmosphere where intrapreneurship was NOT encouraged? Imagine how many AMAZING ideas would be lost, ideas that could perhaps take your organization from mediocre to astonishing?! Mediocre to astonishing simply can not happen without employee engagement!

I once saw an interview with J.K. Rowling – she was telling this story about how some people she respected thought she was nuts when she told them about her ideas for this book she was writing (something about wizards and muggles, you may have heard of it….LOL).

Rowling had this idea, this vision, can you imagine if she weren’t allowed to follow through? If she weren’t a self-employed writer, say she worked at your organization, can you imagine what would happen if a mind like that weren’t allowed to share her ideas freely?

Can you imagine if she was?

Do you know your Top Five?  Take the StrengthsFinder ® HERE.

Shelley Hom is a technology manager with the State of California who was introduced to Strengths Finder through a leadership academy at work. Using what she has learned both in her work and personal life, she mentors colleagues, family and friends on using ones’ strengths to get them where they want to go! When she isn’t working, she loves hanging out with people and enjoying the simple things life has to offer; laughing, chatting, reading, and let’s not forget writing – all usually done with a really good cup of coffee close at hand! Outside of blogging for 34 Strong Shelley’s own blog can be found at: