Intrapreneurs are your early warning system

March 10th, 2017 | By

Intrapreneurs are your early warning system

In 1986, in Britain’s mining industry, there were 200 redundancies issued. It was an underground movement to replace these jobs with technology. Those made redundant weren’t as disappointed as you might think even though they received no severance pay. In fact, they remained quite chirpy despite losing their jobs.


Canaries had been used in Britain’s coal mines since 1911. These little guys and girls were the early warning system for carbon monoxide and other deadly gases. I for one, am certainly pleased these happy little vegemite’s got a reprieve from what now seems like a pretty archaic system.


Every day as the workers set off into the mine, they needed that canary singing its little lungs out.


As you work away in your version of a coal mine (well some organisations are better than others let’s face it…), do you have an early warning system? Who are your Sentinels? Who is always chirping away at the need for change (when times are good) and warning of danger ahead? If you are lucky enough to have them, they are your Intrapreneurs.


Estimates vary on just how many intrapreneurs you may have in your midst in a large organisation. This HBR article says it’s about 0.5%.


I am far more optimistic than that. My experience is that it’s more like 5% of the workforce that are the ‘louder’ type described below and that there are another 5% that are more Skunk Works , off working behind the scenes, in isolation, and can be developed into more effective Intrapreneurs.
So one of two things will be true,

  • You have some intrapreneurs in your midst and you have embraced them OR,
  • You have some intrapreneurs in your midst and you have quelled them

Businesses often subconsciously, tacitly or overtly seek willing players to execute the strategies that have been determined. And of course, we have a need for that. In fact, it would be quite a thing to have everyone willfully resisting every strategic initiative being launched. But do we want our whole workforce to be ‘yes sir, yes ma’am three bags full’? Clearly not.

Can you think of anyone at work who always seems to be trying to change the way things are done? They are far less concerned with efficiency and optimisation than they are about changing stuff and new initiatives? Tinkering, even when things seem to be working fine.

Like Michael Dell pulling apart his brand new Apple II computer at 15
to see how it worked –
rebuilding it to make it faster.

If these Intrapreneurs, are ignored, constrained, or chastised long enough one of two things happen…

(1) they become some of your most toxic employees or
(2) they leave and become entrepreneurs

Here’s the rub…(Why does there always have to be a rub?). You need these people. You need them disagreeing with the majority, you need them challenging the thinking of the day, you need them tinkering with strategies and testing things, you need them constantly dissatisfied with the status quo.


Because ultimately status quo is decline and in times of rapid market change, like we have now, status quo is like a decaying isotope, its radioactive, it starts melting company organs.


Can Intrapreneurs be identified? Can they be developed?

How to identify your Intrapreneurs

Ready reckoner:


  1. is always seeking change?
  2. wants to go their own way and finds it difficult following top down edicts?
  3. sounds critical when not listened to?
  4. has very good influence and lobbying internally and gets stuff done?
  5. resonates with customers/clients better than most?
  6. is quick to volunteer, has many projects on, but doesn’t finish quite a few?
  7. shows passion for the business over their own role?

These people can be spoken about in the context of “Gee they do some bloody good work, but they drive me nuts sometimes”.

Some other adjectives you may have for them are mavericks, rebels, change agents, ideas woman/man, pain in the arse, a gun.

The degree to which the adjectives are positive or negative depends a lot on the culture of the organisation they work in. The more that culture resists change, protects the status quo, and says “that’ll never work” either directly or by inaction, the more rebel you’ll see.

Is everyone who agitates an Intrapreneur?

Importantly, no.  Of of the group who are vocal about change, there are two sub-groups. Those agitating for themselves and those agitating for the business. Intrapreneurs are only the latter. They are almost obsessively focused on improving business performance via change. They’re priority is not to serve themselves, but to serve the business.

How to develop your Intrapreneurs

Your Intrapreneurs can be channelled and most importantly developed into the ‘entrepreneurs within’. Organisations need to innovate and launch new business models when markets move. This completely aligns with getting intrapreneurs and other team members into workshops and programs to hone their intrapreneurship and then into business unit teams that generate new growth for the business.

Some of the skills they need to foster are:

  • Identifying the right business model
  • Implementing business models that start small but can scale
  • Balancing indeterminate risk with finding ways to measure progress
  • Rapid experimentation and iteration loops
  • Tapping into organisational strengths (distribution, customer insights, customer access, analytics, technology trends)
  • Teamwork, leadership, influence
  • Bootstrapping
  • Sustainable revenue, communication and differentiation models

Go find your intrapreneurs, invest in them and channel their efforts.

Beware, when the canaries go quiet is when it’s most dangerous.

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