The 5 Habits Of A Corporate Intrapreneur

Exploring corporate innovation with LEGO’s Intrapreneur In Residence

Intrapreneurs often face an uphill struggle. Driving new thinking and strategies in businesses is notoriously difficult… The bigger and older the organisation, the harder the task. That said, change is constant, and businesses need to learn to adapt. As a result, intrapreneurs are becoming more important, demonstrating a changing world of work that makes collaboration and experimentation ‘business as usual’.

In the words of David Gram, Intrapreneur In Residence at LEGO, the most effective intrapreneurs learn to become ‘diplomatic rebels’. They balance the disruptive forces of innovation within the bigger corporate ecosystem, building up an intrapreneurial culture without jeopardising the existing business. Inspired by his work for LEGO Future Lab and LEGO Ventures, Gram co-founded Diplomatic Rebels to teach precisely these skills.

“LEGO learned the hard way, early on, what it means to take big risks when you don’t yet have the right strategies. You need to be small and nimble and agile. That’s where LEGO Ventures comes in, to invest in and build startups that are able to explore new business opportunities for the company,” he says. “You need to be able to carefully cultivate ecosystem thinking in which smaller entities with high autonomy can explore but be part of the system.”

Before this can happen, intrapreneurs need to become diplomatic rebels. For Gram, there are not many people who naturally can be a rebel and a diplomat at the same time. So what does it take?

1) Understand the resistance

Being a diplomatic rebel starts with understanding resistance.

“There will be resistance within the organisation,” says Gram. “It’s not a sign that you’re doing it wrong or that people aren’t appreciative. It’s human nature that people will wonder what changes mean, and what will happen to their role. If you understand that, you don’t burn out or become frustrated.”

Empathising with resistance in this way means that future changes are likely to be more clearly considered, and better articulated.

2) Understand the rules you are breaking

As well as accepting resistance, the most effective intrapreneurs understand the rules that they are breaking. This means knowing the business’s history. Why is it built the way that it is? What are the rules, and why are they there? Why are people behaving the way that they are?

“When you understand that, you’re able to respect it more, and you’re able to tap into that legacy in the stories you tell,” explains Gram.” It’s about developing empathy for the world around. There is a saying at LEGO – if you want to understand how the lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo, go to the Savannah. You have to go where things are happening and experience it.”

3) Build a tribe

As the saying goes, your tribe creates your vibe… But intrapreneurs need to build their support networks in the first place. Being a successful intrapreneur is about creating a collaborative movement because, when making major changes to established processes, it’s impossible to go it alone.

”Try to see your innovation project as more than just another product or service, but rather as a movement within the organization” Gram adds. “If the project demands new processes, business models and ways of working the intrapreneur will need to invite multiple key stakeholders onboard early on and create excitement. Storytelling is a key component of succeeding with that.”

4) Write ‘love letters’

Intrapreneurs who are driving radical innovation projects are better off if they are able to leverage the existing assets and resources of the business ecosystem. Otherwise, in Gram’s words, they are in the same position as an emerging company starting from scratch. Doing this means getting people on board. So, to build the tribe, diplomatic rebels take a humble approach that Gram calls ‘writing love letters’.

“You need to reach out to all of those people and ask them to help you. Writing love letters is an attitude of humbleness and respect towards the existing business, and knowing you’re standing on the shoulders of giants to look into the future.”

5) Make other people shine

When successful intrapreneurs receive help, they shout about it.

“When you give credit to others, you bring people with you and it becomes a movement,” says Gram. “Often it’s small efforts that make a huge difference to how you, your project, and your mission is being perceived.”

Creating a space for the diplomatic rebel

Based on years of experience in large businesses, the five habits of the diplomatic rebel represent some of the ways of working that intrapreneurs need to cultivate. But it’s also up to businesses to attract these kinds of people, and enable them to become respectful risk takers.

“In my experience, the most effective way to explore radical new concepts is to create separate smaller entities where things can happen. Seal it off from the mothership, allow the way of working to grow and mature, and then you can merge and mix with the existing business if relevant,” says Gram.

Playing and creating is natural for LEGO’s main market – children. But, as children become adults, many tend to play less and become less creative. This, says Gram, is exactly what happens to organisations.”As organizations grow large they become less inclined to try out new things and experiment as they lose their imaginative power. To beat this, a separate space will have to be created for the intrapreneurs where they can try, fail and learn as a small startup.”

“There’s a lot to learn from the LEGO product in that respect, because you can constantly redo what you’ve done,” he says. You need to find the playfulness – the ability to dare to experiment.”

Hear more from David Gram in his keynote at Disruption Summit Europe on the 10th of September.

Disruption Summit Europe