Intrapreneurs are people who adopt entrepreneurial attitudes and apply start-up practices within large bureaucratic organizations. They inspire innovation at all levels as convenors, connectors, collaborators, and solution seekers. Intrapreneurs are talented strategists who find the right mix of people, with the right set of skills, at the right time, to realize opportunities.

Competency in intrapreneurship instills governance, differentiation, integration, and value in new public ventures. Leaders pursue opportunities,  adapt to ambiguity, address risk, and remain resilient. Their mindset is to get better outcomes by trying new practices, taking different approaches, and involving diverse problem solvers. They are change makers who operate within the system to shift the system.

Social leadership and branding are key ways that change makers demonstrate ability and impact. Intrapreneurs practice authentic leadership, meaningful communication, emotional intelligence, real-time recognition, and in-person and virtual visibility. They create safe spaces for innovation that permit and encourage people to take thoughtful risks.

Creating a world of change makers

Ashoka Chairman Bill Drayton put the existential challenge this way: “Social entrepreneurs are not content with giving people fish or teaching people how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

Ashoka is a global non-government organization. It cultivates a community of change leaders who collaborate to transform institutions and cultures worldwide. It grounds social change in patterns of innovation, empathy, the right people, and collegial leadership.  Ashoka’s operating framework sets the bar, shines the spotlight, builds the network, and changes the narrative.

Social change is not bound by sector, silo, or position and is not financed by business alone. It takes different forms, using diverse models at varying scales. Entrepreneurship changes patterns, launches innovations, and finds resources and champions from outside the enterprise. Intrapreneurship changes patterns, launches innovations, allocates resources, and finds champions from inside the institution.

Change-maker organizations like Ashoka employ millions of people, deploy widespread infrastructure to scale, develop skills and expertise, and influence diversified stakeholder networks. Many affiliate through the League of Intrapreneurs to transform from the inside out.

The roots of intrapreneurship in the public sector go back to the 1990s when restructuring flourished under the New Public Management. For example, a Manitoba Treasury Board Secretariat network of 40 intrapreneurs instituted systemic reforms with energy, ideas, and influence. Intrapreneurship featured in dissemination of innovations recognized in national and international awards.

Innovations persist across the public sector landscape, where boosting morale and sustaining enthusiasm for change remain challenges. Traditionally, Deputy Ministers and their senior management teams adopted philosophies that set the tone for organizational change. Today, research confirms that middle managers are the primary public service intrapreneurs who lead from the middle out. 

Lessons for managers

The public sector is a marketplace of ideas. Champions of change at all levels seize opportunities for public purpose. A kind of enlightened entrepreneurship is in order, where risks are assumed with prudence and probity, benefits are measured in terms of the public good, and the watchwords of innovation are “just do it”.

The ability to work in networks is critical for the public service of the future. In addition to collaboration between public and private stakeholders, emerging policy challenges require leadership capabilities that transcend traditional silo thinking. Public servants also need to keep abreast of technological developments and ensure that digital tools are used ethically to add public value.

It is not uncommon to encounter obstacles to change in working relationships. In public-private partnerships (P3s), for example, private partners have a tendency to take advantage of technicalities. Government, which is more risk averse, tends to build tighter specifications into negotiations. Despite this tact, government often assumes most of the risk while relinquishing much of the control. P3s work best when they are based on mutual trust, reciprocal benefits, and enforceable consequences.

Innovation is teachable, insofar as it cultivates open minds and critical thinking. Public managers need to stay alert to the possibilities in their environment and to capitalize boldly and with impeccable timing on opportunities to adapt purposeful change. Creativity is an innate aspect of innovation that needs to be mentored, coached, and then unleashed. The job of top management is to nurture an enabling environment for innovation and results. This competency can be learned too.