The last few years have been a stark reminder that business as usual is not working.  The need for change is greater than it has ever been before.  The pace of change is accelerating, and we must change or be changed. According to Talent Magazine, “For today’s leaders the greatest imperative is leading change.”

Two factors driving change in today’s business climate are the need to generate new business growth and attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent.  When we think about growth, we must remember that we are talking about change.  When we talk about talent, intrapreneurs are the engines of that growth.  Talent, growth and change are inevitably tied together.

Change should not be something that happens to you, but something you control. You might not be able to control everything, but you can learn to manage change.  Yet, change remains one of the most under developed competencies in most organizations.  Due in part to the roadblocks that get in the way.

Intrapreneurs are often referred to as agents of change but what exactly does that mean and what does it take to drive change. We will explore what it takes to drive change, why intrapreneurs struggle to drive change and things Intrapreneurs can do to be more effective agents of change.

You don’t need to be an executive or CEO to be an agent of change.  You need to have the courage to make change happen. It takes entrepreneurial thinking and action to be effective.  

Intrapreneurs that are effective change agents exhibit the following:

  • A willingness to take on the toughest challenges.
  • They look at every situation as an opportunity to grow.
  • They accept the consequences for their actions.
  • They are flexible, adaptable and open to change.
  • They see the world as it could be not as it is.

Intrapreneurs seek out challenges.  The bigger, the tougher the challenge the better. It’s like being a mountain climber. Once you climb a mountain you want to climb a bigger more difficult one next time. 

Intrapreneurs push themselves to do more. They take responsibility for their own growth and development. They have an innate desire to learn and grow. 

They are willing to accept the consequences of their actions. They take calculated risks and have a tolerance for failure. They push beyond the limits of their own understanding.

Intrapreneurs understand that the business world is rapidly changing so they are willing to be flexible and adaptable.  If a new piece of information comes in that impacts what they are doing they will change direction or stop and start over.

Once Intrapreneurs experience one of these projects they now believe that anything is possible. They can envision a different way, a different path and so they seek to achieve it.  They demonstrate through their behavior what it takes to make change happen.

The most effective path to change is not always quick or easy but it needs to be change that sticks and therein lies the problem.  There are several roadblocks that Intrapreneurs face and struggle to overcome. Here are a few of those roadblocks.

Finding Balance

In any intrapreneurial project there are two opposing forces at work that create tension and conflict.  The forces trying to maintain the status quo and those trying to change it.  The core business and the new business you are building.  Organizations have a good handle on what is required in the core business but less so when building a new one.  Many of the things done in the core business are just the opposite of what is required to build a new one.

Organizations must cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset while maintaining a balance between the core business and the growth business. There is a need to guide and control entrepreneurial action. The only way to do that is to understand the inherent conflict between these two forces.  This is the paradox of intrapreneurship.  It is a two-way street.  It is not an either-or but an and-also. 

As one intrapreneur told me, “You are playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers.” Intrapreneurs find themselves in a situation where they seem to be playing a different game, with different rules.  When it comes to dealing with others they must stop and shift to the other game.  They need to play both.  They are playing both games simultaneously.  It is not that one is better than the other it is that they are two different ways of playing. 

Intrapreneurs are responsible for balancing these not the organization.  They have one foot in both worlds. They live in a world of contrasts.  Being loyal on one hand and independent on the other.  Collaborative and competitive, poised and passionate, tough minded and empathic, factual and intuitive. This is what makes all the difference. It is this ability to co-exist in both these worlds that sets them apart from others.  They have the breadth and depth to understand that it is a balancing act. 

Finding the right balance is a critical aspect of driving change.  Only then will you find it easier to make change happen.

People, Process or Culture

The ongoing debate in the business and academic world is whether people, process or culture is most important when it comes to driving change. Seventy percent of organizations think process alone will drive intrapreneurship.  Most organizations have an innovation process, yet most new innovations fail. A process can provide discipline and structure, but it can’t anticipate or navigate obstacles. It isn’t until you are in a process that you understand what needs to be tweaked or replaced.  It isn’t the process but the people behind the process that make those decisions.

Champions, mavericks and intrapreneurs are known for their ability to push their ideas through to implementation. Their raw determination can make the impossible, possible. It is their belief in what they are doing; their commitment to a project, their ability to be independent, deal with ambiguity, navigate obstacles and bring things to closure that makes the difference. They provide the energy, motivation and drive. It is their actions that move the project and the organization forward.

Creating an entrepreneurial culture lays the foundation for changing organizational behavior. Change however takes time, energy and commitment that most organizations don’t have.  A recent study by BCG found that 75% of all change initiatives fail to achieve their objectives.  Change requires a shift in thinking and behavior, a role model to guide the way. Not just modeling change but leading change and enabling others to change.  It is people that drive change by becoming the change they hope to achieve.

All three of these elements, people, process and culture, are important but the common thread that runs through all of them are people.  Change happens when people change and when people change cultures change. Changing process is not sustainable over the long term.  Yet we continue to see organizations start with process or structure to try to make change happen. For change to be sustainable you must change how people think and act. 

Change will only happen once you’ve changed behavior at the individual and organizational level.  

Earning the Right

A key hurdle that most Intrapreneurs encounter is not having the freedom and flexibility to make change happen.   Intrapreneurs must earn the right.  Being an intrapreneur is not an intellectual exercise it is all about the experience.  The more experience you get as an intrapreneur the more success you can achieve.  There is a quote that says, “Success breeds success” and when it comes to Intrapreneurs that is a key that unlocks the door to driving change. 

Intrapreneurs must demonstrate success before they are given the freedom to make change happen. It could be the successful launch of a new product or service, solving an organizational problem, creating a new process or opening a new market.  The type of success doesn’t matter it is the visibility and recognition that one achieves from that success that gives you the freedom you will need. The higher the visibility in the organization the better. It is all about building the clout and political capital you need to drive change.

Even if you are just starting out, you must earn the right.   Every intrapreneur must build a portfolio of skills and capabilities that enable them to be successful.  It all depends on the work you sign up for and the challenges you take on.  Playing it safe is not the way to build the skills that will be needed. What you need is to find an opportunity to develop and demonstrate your intrapreneurial capabilities. 

Individuals that are more intrapreneurial will develop their own capabilities through their work. They earn the right and are then given the freedom to drive change.

Communication Gap

A seasoned intrapreneur and executive working for the CEO of a large financial institution told me that when she sat in meetings with her peer’s she thought to herself, “They can’t see what I’m saying.”  They would shake their heads as if they understood but, they didn’t grasp the full meaning of her words.  They couldn’t envision the picture she was painting or understand the impact that it would have on the growth of the company.  She called me right after one of those meetings and I walked her off the ledge, figuratively not literally.

Communication is one of the biggest roadblocks to change especially when it comes to dealing with executives.  My inference is that for many executive’s innovation and intrapreneurship are concepts that are not fully understood. Due in part to the fact that intrapreneurship is something you learn through experience and few executives participate in these types of efforts.  Without experience it is often hard to imagine something if you have not been actively involved in it, believed in or were passionate about it. Executives intellectually understand innovation and intrapreneurship but there isn’t a head/heart connection.  They may not know the gut wrenching feeling that you have as an intrapreneur or understand what it is like until they walk in your shoes.

This makes if difficult for individuals who are not intrapreneurs to see what you say.  They may hear what you are saying but not internalize it.  That makes it hard to get your points across in a way that they understand. Part of the communication issue is listening to understand not trying to sell or influence them.  Until you understand their perspective, they won’t try to understand yours. Finding the gaps in understanding is the first step to better communications.

You won’t convince everyone but looking at change through their perspective is a good way to begin to get others to see why the change you are advocating is a positive step forward.

Managing the Valley of Despair

Every project goes through its own life cycle.  One day the project is going well, the next day it is not.  Individuals and teams working on these types of projects find themselves on a roller coaster.  At each step individuals feel differently, and they act differently depending on where they are in the cycle.  It’s all about breaking away from the old systems and embracing the new.  .

Most intrapreneurial projects go through what I call the Valley of Despair.  At the beginning of a project everyone is excited and energized.  They reality sets in and things slow down.  The excitement is replaced with pressure and stress. The team runs up against roadblocks.  They realize that they have signed up to do something that now seems impossible.  The pressure is too much for some. Some go back to the core business, others will leave the company.  Holding the team together at this point is a challenge.  The team will have to regroup and get back on track.

Eventually the team will begin to build back momentum, turn the corner, and climb out of the valley of despair. The team has created a new way of working, new systems and processes to support them.  You are asking them to let go of what is familiar, grounded and stable and grab onto something fragile, shaky and unproven.  They have made the transition and have broken away from the core business.  They are personally and professionally changed by the experience.  They will look back at the core business and see it in a new light. They will see what is now possible. 

Going through the valley of despair is part of the process.  It will test your patience and resolve. There is no turning back, only going forward. That’s how change happens.

Dealing with Resistance

Resistance to change is the number one challenge that Intrapreneurs tell us is holding them back.  Despite the progress many of them are making in their respective organizations they feel that resistance is the biggest obstacle to their success.  It raises the issue of why do we resist change?

According to the Article Effective Skills of Change Agents, “Individuals and organizations do not resist change; they resist disturbances to their frame of reference caused by change.” Each person’s reality is filtered by their own frame of reference. – their attitudes, expectations, behaviors, emotions, beliefs, values, habits, experience, education, social styles and so on. 

Resistance comes from asking people to change their frame of reference.  What are you asking them to change? How many things are you asking them to change? What impact will the change have on them? Organizations also have a frame of reference.  The extent to which you are asking an individual or organization to change their frame of reference is related to the level of resistance to that change.  You are asking them to revise their vision of themselves. 

The challenge is unlearning and relearning new attitudes, beliefs, and values that support more entrepreneurial thought and action.  Change occurs at the individual, then the team and eventually the organizational level – often one person at a time.

Overcoming Barriers

Intrapreneurs encounter a host of barriers, some are obvious – many are hidden. You are creating something new, something that may never have been done before.  There are no roadmaps or guidebooks for you to follow.  You are creating a new path.  You will run up against things that the organization has not had to deal with before.  You are on your own. You will need to do what it takes to get from strategy to execution. 

Everything in the organization is a potential barrier. You won’t know what they are until you encounter them. Along the way you will run into a myriad of things; things that impede your progress like shifting priorities, processes that don’t support what you are doing like budgeting systems, policies like long approval processes, cultures where things are done a certain way, or people who are more interested in seeing your project fail then succeed. 

Like organizational barriers, there are individual barriers as well.  Being an intrapreneur is not easy, you will often find yourself swimming upstream against the tide, you will feel alone, doubt yourself, question what you are doing. The individual barriers include a lack of self-awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses, knowing how you collect, evaluate and process information, or having the right types of experiences that make you stop, reflect and shift your views.  The filters you use to see the world around you – do you see problems or opportunities; do you rely on data or your own experience to guide you and do you act, or do you wait until things become clearer.

These are some of the organizational and individual barriers that can get in your way.  Some things will need to be tweaked, changed or replaced.  We’ve identified over ninety organizational barriers so far that can potentially get in your way. What is important is how you deal with them. 

Navigating barriers and dealing with them when they occur is how change happens. It’s not about what you do, it’s about the fact that you do something about it.  Nothing happens until something changes.


Execution is a learned experience.  It is a process that is driven by the decisions and actions that are taken to move a project forward. The measure of success for any project is not whether it was delivered on time or on budget but whether it delivered value.  Creating value is the key to growth and change is required to achieve that growth. 

Execution is not an event but an integral part of the development process.  It is an attitude, a competence, and a set of behaviors that motivate people to bring things to closure. It is a complex set of interrelated variables that must come together perfectly to achieve precision.  Precision in execution begins with a clear understand of the end goal and the intended business benefits.

Clarity of vision is one end of the spectrum, execution is at the other. Visions take on a life of their own.  As the project evolves the vision will shift and so will the process for getting there. The project itself will change as you integrate new ideas and new learning into it.  It isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. There are plenty of twists and turns.  The target will shift and change many times throughout the project. There must be the flexibility to change course when it is necessary or kill a project when it no longer makes sense.

Most entrepreneurial efforts never actually wind up where they initially intended because they cannot account for all the variables that will get in the way.  You can’t anticipate everything, but you can deal with contingencies. Setting and resetting expectations will be an ongoing process because the process itself will change and everything around will be in a constant state of flux. So, it is not surprising that three out of five organizations consider themselves weak when it comes to execution.

As in intrapreneur it is incumbent upon you to stay on top of that change, manage it and lead it if you hope to hit the target. The goal is to maximize the value you deliver to clients and the organization.

Flying Blind

Years ago I took my team to an outbound facility in the woods for a team building exercise.  When we got to the high wire beam, I asked the instructor for a blind fold. It seemed that it would be easier, less fearful, to not look down from the fifty-foot height.  Someone on the ground would be guiding me verbally.  Well, suddenly everyone on my team wanted a blind fold not for the same reasons as me but for having the courage to try it flying blind.

Later that day we did another exercise where we were blind folded and given a long rope and asked to make a perfect square by guiding one another to move in a certain direction one way or another.  It took more than an hour for us to make a perfect square. Why is this important and what does it have to do with being an intrapreneur and driving change – a lot.   Most of the time intrapreneurs are flying blind without a net. 

It is not only that you are flying blind, but you must consciously keep yourself focused forward.  Not letting the noise and chaos around you distract you.  You are on a mission and you need to move forward.  At times alone or as a team.  The rest of the organization may not understand what you are doing, how you are doing it or even why you are doing it.  You may be asking yourself the same things.  You are charting a new path, a new way forward that is creating the change as you move through it.

It isn’t until you are on the other side of the Valley of Despair that you will see what you have accomplished or what you have achieved or what amount of change was required to get there. That is why being an Intrapreneur is not easy.  It is one of the most challenging and rewarding. 

Perhaps you don’t need to go around the office with a blind fold on, but you may want to keep your eyes closed at times to avoid all noise and chaos around you only to see in your mind what is possible.  Change happens when you can take an idea that seems impossible and turn it into what’s possible.

These are only a few of the roadblocks that you will encounter along the way.  It is only a roadblock if you let it stop you.

Think about what Randy Pausch said in his speech, The Last Lecture, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out.  The brick walls are there to give us a chance to see how badly we want something.  Because the brick walls are not there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough.  They’re there to stop the other people.”

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