A five-part series about understanding and motivating your innovative employees
As a recovering English major, I’m constantly thinking about language and how it’s used. To make sense of some challenges I was facing in innovation leadership, I went back to my literary roots and examined the meaning of two critical words: idealist and realist.
The dictionary definition of an idealist is a person who is guided more by ideals than by practical considerations. I have often described myself as an idealist in the sense that I can envision a positive future for whatever organization I’m working with.
On the other hand, the dictionary definition of a realist is a person who accepts a situation as it is and is prepared to deal with it accordingly. While the idealist in me does envision a different future, I’ve also learned the importance of acknowledging and accepting a current reality.
The strict definition of an idealist suggests that someone who is a visionary cannot also be someone who can create practical implementation strategies. I disagree. Without an understanding of the situation as it exists – the realist’s approach – you cannot formulate an improved response.
I fruitlessly tried to find a term that represents a balance of both words, until it hit me – that word is intrapreneur! Any successful intrapreneur will tell you that, without a healthy dose of both idealism and realism, innovation will never happen.
Organizations constantly struggle with this balance, and many err too far on the side of realism because they perceive idealism as too risky. They balk at taking even well-thought-out chances in favour of the safety and security of NOW. This has happened to me in organizational life more times than I care to remember.
The problem with NOW is that it changes frequently, especially in this world of constant volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Those of you already involved in innovation will recognize these four words as VUCA, a term first coined by Cold-war era students at the US Army College.
Intrapreneurs are your prime employee vehicle for helping you navigate a VUCA world, but like their entrepreneur cousins, intrapreneurs are often and unfairly tarred with the ‘risky’ brush.
Contrary to popular belief, entrepreneurs are not extreme risk-takers1 and often aim to take managed and rational risks. In fact, the only difference between them and employees is that they have higher self-confidence than most other people.
In Adam Grant’s 2016 book on entrepreneurs, The Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, he notes that,
…there is a growing body of evidence…that entrepreneurs don’t like risk any more than the rest of us – and it’s the rare conclusion on which many economists, sociologists, and psychologists have actually come to agree (p. 22).
In one study2 of entrepreneurs and employees, entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to choose the safest option for new ventures – regardless of income, wealth, age, gender, entrepreneurial experience, marital status, and education.
Now that you know risk is not the governing philosophy of your intrapreneurs, what can you do to help your organization be more comfortable with risk? Here are 3 simple steps to help you begin:
- Start Small. You don’t have to ‘bet the farm’ on a big idea. Some of the best innovations are small, incremental steps. Develop your risk muscles by approving small projects with relatively low costs.
- Imagine the Worst-Case Scenario. I like to call this ‘expectation management’ – if you imagine the worst, you’re not shocked if it happens. Most of the time, however, the worst-case scenario does not happen, and you may well be pleasantly surprised with what does.
- Don’t Allow Perfection to be the Enemy of the Good. If you’re waiting for all the stars to align, you’ll be waiting a long time. Innovation is almost always about embarking on an idea with incomplete information. Nothing in life has zero risk, so if you start small and imagine the worst-case scenario, you’ll feel better about proceeding with an as-yet-imperfect concept.
Risk is in the eye of the beholder, and only you and your organization can decide on the appropriate level of risk to suit your comfort level. Keep in mind that the only bad choice when it comes to risk is not engaging in any at all. In a VUCA world, the only thing you know for sure is that things will change. How will you stay ahead of your competitors?
1Garg, A. K., & Duvenhage, A. (2014). Risk-Taking Patterns of Male and Female Entrepreneurs in Roodepoort. African & Asian Studies, 13(4), 452–478.
2Honewei Xu and Martin Ruef, The Myth of the Risk-Tolerant Entrepreneur in Strategic Organization 2 (2004): 331 – 55.
Grant, A. (2016). The Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. New York: Viking.
Check back soon for Part 5 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs.
To read Part 1 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs, click here.
To read Part 2 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs, click here.
To read Part 3 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs, click here.
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