While calls for change in higher education are loud, discourse on intrapreneurship—aptly defined by Pamela Hartigan and Charmian Love as “internal change agents ... who embrace the characteristics of entrepreneurs but work within large organizations”—as a possible solution is much quieter. In fact, it is too quiet for our liking. Higher education organizations maintain a stodgy and bureaucratic reputation, but empowered intrapreneurs present an opportunity for them to evolve and thrive in an increasingly competitive market.
So what enables an intrapreneur’s success? In a recent SSIR article, “Social Innovation From the Inside Out,” Warren Nilsson and Tana Paddock make the case that supportive leadership and an enabling environment facilitate innovation. We agree that these conditions are necessary, but there are also specific practices intrapreneurs can implement to create systemic change in a wide variety of contexts.
In the arena of higher education reform, here are a few lessons we’ve learned as intrapreneurs working to generate, integrate, and accelerate ideas at Arizona State University (ASU):
1. Seek to understand before you seek to change. Intrapreneurs—in contrast to entrepreneurs—must work within an existing system. To be a change leader within an organization, it is important to respect and understand what has come before you.
When co-author Ryen Borden was tasked with finding ways to integrate best practices from Teach For America into Arizona State University’s college of education, she invested time in building relationships and understanding the context of the college before proposing changes. Focusing on the strengths of each organization, rather than perceived deficits, created an environment where people could embrace innovative ideas.
2. Launch initiatives that respond to a demonstrated need and align with institutional mission. We have learned to leverage both positive and negative situations—when our institution is celebrated or criticized—to reflect on the status quo, and assess how and whether we can improve. For example, a team of students and staff, including co-author Jacqueline Smith, launched a university-wide social change initiative called Changemaker Central when Ashoka U designated ASU as a Changemaker Campus. We developed the vision and mission for the initiative from a place of accomplishment (due to the designation), but we also closely examined feedback from students about needing to make our social entrepreneurship and community service resources easier to navigate.
As the design process for any such initiative evolves, intrapreneurs need to keep an open mind and be ready to pivot. Sometimes they will contribute to the design an initiative but not ultimately manage its operations. If this is the case, as you enter the execution stage, incubate the project and work through some of the inevitable surprises before transitioning the initiative to a more permanent home. Work closely with the operational stakeholders in the early design stages to ensure that there is collaborative ideation and buy-in. Imagine yourself as long-term project managers, and try to anticipate the joys and challenges that will emerge after the incubation phase.
3. Figure out when to step up, step in, and step aside. Developing an intrapreneurial style can feel more like an art than a science, but intrapreneurs can learn to identify and respond to patterns from the people, organizations, and initiatives in their network.
Nikki Gusz, another co-author of this piece, cultivates, defines, and structures a diverse portfolio of new partnerships (such as the national collective impact group 100Kin10); she also oversees existing projects that benefit from renewed energy and reimagined approaches (such as an annual faculty and staff summit). In doing this work, she must regularly assess what opportunities will most accelerate the organization and who is best poised to get the job done. Intrapreneurs must learn how to ask thoughtful questions—especially important ones that everyone else is thinking but might be too nervous or busy to ask. Be smart enough to incorporate learning into future approaches and brave enough to audaciously pursue the next opportunity.
As society evolves, so must institutions of higher education. With committed senior leadership and a culture of collaboration and risk-taking, universities can foster the right enabling environment for intrapreneurs to change the landscape of higher education. These are just some of our strategies for success; we’re eager to learn how other members of the growing intrapreneurship community are confronting challenges and leading change.