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Out with the CEO and in with intrapreneurship

Gina Fairley

What is intrapreneurship and how is it affecting the future of work? A panel of experts explores how organisations can change themselves from the inside out.
Out with the CEO and in with intrapreneurship
Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash.

We have all heard of innovation and entrepreneurship, but 'intrapreneurship' is a relatively recent concept. It focuses on the idea that the employees of a company adopt many of the attributes of entrepreneurs, that is, people who are willing to take risks in an effort to solve a given problem, and it is this culture that drives the organisation.

One of the catalysts for the rise of intrapreneurship is the rate and pace of change that we face on a daily basis. The problem, however, is that the strategies and procedures that surround the intrapreneurial thinking are counter to the rigid structures that larger organisations tend adopt for seamless operation.

‘Innovation is a buzzword – one of the most mentioned words at the moment – but how do we innovate if we are part of a large organisation, and how do large organisations bring in innovators if they haven’t had that history in past?’

This was the opening question on a panel discussing intrapreneurship at the recent REMIX Summit held in Sydney, presented by panel chair, Dr Natalia Nikolova, Senior Lecturer in Management, UTS Business School.

She added, ‘It is an imperative that we are doing it [innovating] to survive.’

Alison Wright, Assistant Director, Engagement and Development at the National Gallery of Australia was quick to answer: ‘For me, innovation is the beige word in business today. Innovation doesn’t come from this big nefarious culture; it comes from people – it comes from dreamers that do!’

Wright said that if you were to ask a group, such as this audience of creative sector professionals gathered for REMIX, who identifies as an intrapreneur and who identifies as a dreamer, it would be clear that self perception doesn’t match the hottest lexicon. 

New future of work makes for new job titles

Job titles seem to have a new currency in the contemporary work future. Dom Price, who calls himself a recovering accountant, today sports the title of 'Work Futurist'. He is Head of Research and Development at Atlassian, a leading provider of productivity software. 

‘One of the things we had to undo or unlearn recently was the idea of the word genius, that idea that creativity comes from some 55-year old Anglo Saxon white man. If you’ve not got diversity of thought, of experience, and can bounce ideas off each other, (in your organisation) then it’s a complete waste of time. We signed up to the idea that the word genius is dead,' said Price.

‘So how do you get ideas from everyone, and how do you create a realm where they are allowed to do that? One of my philosophies is that everyone is a dreamer; just most of them have had the shit kicked out of them,’ said Price.

Wright was on the same page of thought. ‘We hire on curiosity. It is a core thing. And I also look for ball-breakers. We have a $6 billion asset and 160,000 artworks – we are already awesome – so my job is to define growth, and then to grow.’

She added that the problem is that 'rule breakers' are hard to spot in an interview.

Price said that part of their hiring process is to do a values screening.

‘We ask, “How you can bring your unique self to our values?”  The caveat is that some people are a product of their environment. So what we are looking for is potential. You can usually smell someone with a growth mindset and who is willing to be curious, challenged, be a bit provocative and get shit wrong and not be ashamed by it,’ he said.

Pushing the risk factor is exhausting

Increasingly, as arts works and creatives we are told that embracing risk and edgy corporate thinking is a necessity for survival. And yet that persistence to push boundaries – and the swarm of challenges that come with it – can be exhausting.

Nikolova made the point that it is even more difficult for large organisations where being the devil’s advocate or the rule breaker goes against the grain because the very definition of a large organisation is lots of rules, procedures and bureaucracy that squashes this orientation in people.

Wright said that it comes down to leadership. ‘You have to find the intrapreneurs – the leaders. There are a lot of people who don’t want to change. But that is my job to continually find that energy.’

Price continued: ‘Organisations don’t create processes, people do… If you are not willing to change the way you work and evolve, compliance or process wont enable you to win.’

It is a thought that Neil Ackland, Co-Founder & CEO of Junkee media, knows well. ‘As a small business that has been buffered by many different head winds we have had to pretty much throw our business model out three or four times in the twelve years I have been running the company.’

He believes that key to that is spotting the next wave and staying ahead of the curve. Sounds like surfing, but really it is the foundation of what an intrapreneur does.

‘We are constantly looking at where we are on the curve and asking ourselves is it time to start another wave.

‘You can do that at an organisation level or you can do that at a product level. For example, we launched a Gen Z title, Punkee recently because we knew that there was another wave coming and asked how do we jump on that wave now, and get the lead on the market and start talking about this before anyone else.

‘We have made that part of our DNA as an organisation. The second we stop creating those waves the business goes off into a slump,’ said Ackland.

He said that younger people, by their very nature, are excited by new things and if organisations and businesses don’t continue to innovate, to try and break things and play around, they loose the zeitgeist of what that can be as an organisation.

How to find the resources to innovate

Great ideas but how do you implement them when you are stretched for resources, especially when the day-to-day pressures are constant?

Kate Cherry, Director and CEO of NIDA, said that the only way that we can prepare for our work future is to argue for it.

‘You have to argue for the fact that you have to resource for the future, and that means we, as a culture, have to admit we don’t always know what the future is – that we are making guesses about it, that it is moving quickly. 

‘In order to have genuine innovation in any organisation you have to be prepared to argue that we need money for that and to say upfront that we have no idea what the outcome will be or where this will take us, but to argue that it is about preparing an environment for ideas to flourish,’ said Cherry.

She believes that in Australia we are too polite when it comes to money – locked into government thinking – and often that can be anti-innovation because it slows things down.

She continued: ‘If you are in an institution that made up their minds what they were 60 years ago, how then do we accept the fact that everything now is about evolution and change – and it is changing constantly.’  

Cherry’s belief is that we need to be teaching things like empathy and resilience, and how to take risks and be human – these are the skills that will prepare us for our work future.

Price continued: ‘I think the education system is completely screwed. The fundamentals of what you do with a child is you tell them to learn by themselves and get examined by themselves and if they talk to another student that is called cheating, and then the minute they graduate you tell them to collaborate – after teaching them 20 years not to do it.

‘We don’t curiosity; we don’t play; we don’t teach them to be rule breakers. The challenge I have is they are not things you can learn, they are things you have to practice. I have an company of 2,500 engineers and if one of our leaders told them to embrace empathy then the will go and read a book on it and regurgitate it to me, and they will be no better at empathy. So to get better at these things we have to practice them and not just acquire the knowledge,’ said Price.

The value system

It is part of a much bigger conversation of what was value – a trend that ran across many of the presentations at REMIX this year.

Wright said that the most pressing thing that we are facing as the culture sector is redefining how we value what we do.

‘Right now in the culture sector we value economics and business and it is a numerical system of reporting – numbers through the door – and that could not be further from the impact of what we are doing,’ she said.

‘At the NGA we are working now on creating a brand new set of KPIs for our organisation that we should be able to share openly. This is new territory for us all, and we have to define what that is?’

‘You can have a profound life-changing moment in a gallery in 15-minutes, and how do I capture that? How do I tell my Board, and how do I tell the Federal Government when what I value is not what they tell me. I think that we can tell government what we value; we don’t have to wait for that to happen,’ said Wright.

Ackland continued: ‘Engagement will play a lead in the way things will go in the future. Whether in the real world or social if people are engaging then all the other KPIs will take care of themselves.’

At Junkee engagement is everything – both in house and beyond.

‘We have four core values at Junkee. One of them is, “Can I do it? Fuck yeah” – that is on our walls in the office. We recruit to those company values. Another one is “Good enough is shit”. Sometimes you want to have a crack at something but you are out of your comfort zone so you put quality aside. These values help us to say that the responsibility comes from everyone, and is not just top down,’ said Ackland.

It was a point that Wright also finished up on.

Wright believes that the future of work is not longer just about one leader, about a CEO. ‘If we look only at pyramid structures of leadership then you’re not getting it; you have to adopt the responsibility of the intrapreneur.’

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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