Public sector intraprenurship: overcoming bureaucratic immune systems

In a massive public bureaucracy like the US Military, what is intrapreneurship and is it possible?

Public sector intraprenurship.

Intraprenurship is a leadership style that integrates risk-taking and innovation approaches, as well as the reward and motivational techniques that are more traditionally thought of as being the province of entrepreneurship.

Bureaucracy needs intrapreneurs

Colonel Bill DeMarco
Colonel Bill DeMarco

Large organisations need intrapreneurs to create, communicate and stimulate innovation even if they think they need it or not. They may not be successful, but the process of idea generation, challenge and debate are crucial in order to prevent organisational ossification.

The intrapreneurs’ role is to take a new idea, convince others and turn it into a reality. To innovate, intrapreneurs require the trust of executive leadership and in turn the ability to execute effectively an idea.
As a leader, we cannot plan innovation so we can’t create a formal, structured plan describing exactly what results we expect. This makes innovation in a large bureaucracy extremely difficult. We have to allow for the serendipity and flexibility that make intrapreneuring work—and that includes time to think. A key factor is selecting the right team to work on the idea and trust it to perform effectively, as opposed to believing the key is simply the idea itself which will in-turn be a boom or profit for the organisation.

Ideas are easy, but action a challenge

It is pretty easy to come up with ideas. The crux of the issue for an intrapreneur is what do we do with these ideas. For this we need leaders that are heroes. Heroes, by definition, are simply leaders known for their courage, outstanding achievements, and high moral character.

Turning an idea into a new product, service, process, or system that is widely used requires all of the qualities of a hero; courage, vision, and a willingness to lead using experiences, networks, and a comprehension of the bureaucratic map to include land mines, booby traps, and villains not caring who receives the credit.

As we know, heroes are creative and rarely work alone. It is difficult for intrapreneurs to work on their own in a complex, organisational environment; therefore we need to create a team who can work together on turning ideas into reality. Ideally, we should build a diverse team from a variety of disciplines and functions in the organisation. Each member brings different perspectives and skills to the project, and all members must be passionate, enthusiastic, and committed.

We were successful in building such a team at RAF Mildenhall—referred to as the 100th Operations Group Creative (OGC) or more simply, The Creative.

The command team (Commander and Deputy) served as the sponsor, coach, mentor, and protected the team as well as securing resources. We relieved the team from having to seek approvals and manoeuvre through day-to-day bureaucracy and politics. OGC was allowed to focus on making innovative projects work. As the team members worked on the projects, they gradually took on a life of their own as more and more people, from new team members to higher headquarters, major commands, and The Pentagon all became excited about some of the projects.

As we began creative work at the USAF’s Officer Training School, we were confronted with a new conundrum. We had to recognise that everyone has the ability to be creative. This talent is buried in some who may have been discouraged by parents, teachers, or employers to create. Many folks are simply uncomfortable with a “blank canvas”, so we actively worked to create an environment that nurtured creativity.

Intrapreneurs versus bureaucratic immune systems

As ideas are generated, it is the heroic leader’s role to support these ideas, protecting them from those who are sceptical regarding creative concepts. The “bureaucratic immune system” responds with initial resistance to anything that might disturb the status quo. The intrapreneur helps create a compelling vision to focus the efforts of the team and builds a campaign illustrating how the organization will profit from the innovation.

As the leader we need to invest time into mentoring and coaching the team, and when we do we must conscientiously lower our status so the team members don’t think we are giving them a directive. Instead, we become part of the creative. However, we are also still the heroic leaders that will engage in any necessary behind-the-scenes politicking on behalf of ideas.

Climate change

The organisation must have a supportive climate creator on top to create and promote an organisational culture to nurture innovation. This culture needs to give the idea generator, intrapreneur and team the freedom to develop and implement effective innovation through the intrapreneurial process. For an intrapreneur to thrive, there must be an eco-system to support him/her.

Let’s not pretend intraprenurship in a large public organisation is easy or comfortable, but it is the intrapreneur who can stimulate a change that today seems radical but tomorrow normal practise.

Back to the Hero, this all-out effort takes courage. Courage to push the idea, even if we have to bend or ignore some unimportant rules; just be careful not to push any rules that actually endanger the organisation or its members. This takes discernment, wisdom, knowledge, and grace. If we push too hard and something breaks, we utilise that high moral character and take full responsibility.

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Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

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