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Intrapreneur Survival Skills


Intrapreneurs are employees who are trying to act like entrepreneurs. It is a particularly difficult undertaking because they have to fight a 2-front war.

Intrapreneurs are employees who are trying to act like entrepreneurs. It is a particularly difficult undertaking because they have to fight a 2-front war. On the one hand, like all entrepreneurs, they have to find the right product-market fit, whether it be internal customers or external ones. At the same time, they have to deal with all the organizational politics, bosses, systems, policies, and procedures designed to stifle innovation and optimize resources to maintain the status quo. Most organizations, including universities and sick-care institutions, are obsessed with the now, not the new. They simply don't know what to do with intrapreneurs who want to innovate.

The usual strategy is to marginalize, stigmatize and traumatize intrapreneurs until they leave. The corporate immune system is particularly well suited for the task. Sometimes, in the case of physician intrapreneurs, they are labelled as being "disruptive" and forced out.

If you are an intrapreneur, here are a few survival strategies:

1. You will need to build your power base. There are 5 sources: legitimate, expert, referrent, coercive, reward. You can also derive power from legal statutes or regulations giving you a protected status.

2. Ask for forgiveness, not permission, but know your limits. Don't drill holes below the water line (Andrew Gove at Intel).

3. Understand and practice office politics, power, persuasion, and negotiation.

4. Find a sponsor. A sponsor is different from a mentor. A sponsor puts some skin in the game and makes an investment. A mentor provides support and advice. Sponsors are usually people higher in the food chain who are there to provide you with cover from the flack you will get. Once you lose your sponsor (retirement, they got fired), you are particularly vulnerable, so watch your back.

5. Beware of recruiting team members who will "frag" you.

6. Pilot projects and ideas before attempting a full throated launch. Demonstrate value, no matter how small, and leverage the success.

7. Approach intrapreneurial products and services just like any other, understanding the unmet need and customer pain, creating a solution with a compelling value proposition, and validating a business model.

8. Keep score, noting and reporting, at a minimum, what's important, not what's interesting. What's important is whatever your boss thinks it is.

9. Have an internal marketing plan and execute it relentlessly.

10. Don't expect anyone, particularly your boss, to give you any support or resources for a project that does not generate an immediate, short-term result. Be particularly careful if you spend time and effort on something that will jeopardize your ability to generate revenue in the short term. The flip side of "it's not my job" is "it's not your job." If your initiative shows results, expect to get calls from people who all of sudden want to be your friend.

Intrapreneurship is a tough business and claims many victims. Like a virtual hall of shame, the survivors know who they are as part of the institutional memory and bunker down to avoid suffering the same fate.

There is some comfort, however, in knowing that when and if it's time to go, you are battle hardened and that you have only lost a battle and not the war.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
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