We have likely all been renters at some point in our lives. The apartment where we lived belonged to the landlord. Usually, its care and maintenance were not high on our list of priorities. If something went wrong, was damaged, torn, or chipped, it was the landlord’s problem—not ours.
But then, the day arrived when we had saved enough money to qualify for our own mortgage on our own house. Suddenly, our entire attitude changed about how we viewed our property, because it was now “ours”. We were quick to notice when something was not functioning properly. We took care of the wiring and the plumbing. We tried not to scratch the walls and fixtures. We avoided spills on the carpet. We felt great pride in it because it was our house! We owned it!
This analogy applies to the attitudes of your organization’s leaders. They can view themselves as merely renters or as owners. Their choice makes a huge difference in their attitude and performance. Renters in organizations tend to maintain the status quo while owners tend to be more innovative and demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit. The leader has a major influence on which view they choose.
Unfortunately, leaders may give mixed signals—asking for new ideas and initiatives yet in the end (whether purposefully or not) underfunding, under resourcing, or under prioritizing the very efforts they demanded. The message often sounds like this: Please be different and creative…but not too much and only in ways that everyone likes. Too often the request for entrepreneurial action is killed by well-intentioned but misaligned institutional inertia and controls.
How does a leader promote ownership and innovation within an established organization? Below are four steps that will enable, and not stymie, leaders to free their entrepreneurial instincts and improve the organization.
Get the Right Skills Up Front (Hire Right!)
The first step is to search and select leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset. Purposefully interview and hire people who like to try something new. Ask them about experiences they have had when they disrupted the status quo while promoting the organization’s purpose. Ask them how they encouraged ideas that challenged accepted assumptions. Ask them how they respected the rationale for current practices while not automatically giving into them. For key positions, bringing in leaders who love shaking things up to grow the business is vital to fostering real ownership.
Recognize Trade-Offs in Control vs. Risk (Make Room for New Ideas!)
As organizations grow, it is inevitable that rules and procedures increase. These elements of organizational control become the scourge and often the undoing of many good inside entrepreneurs. Instead of lamenting and seeking to eliminate these controls (meetings, reporting relationships, approvals), it is important to actively negotiate the trade-offs that must occur in balancing risk and stability.
For example, while external entrepreneurs risk financial uncertainty, inside entrepreneurs (or intrapreneurs) risk social standing and relationship capital. They don’t need to find investors as much as finding an open boss or peers to support their ideas (and not look at them as crazy). So, instead of creating staff meetings to only support updates on pre-approved efforts, why not add an agenda item for “Big Thinking” or unplanned projects. This provides a space within established processes for riskier ideas to be more safely shared.
Provide, Incentivize and Resource (Make it Happen!)
Inside entrepreneurs typically have a strong bias for action. They want to move and make progress. They want to shift from talking to prototyping. Despite a strong sense of independence, entrepreneurs often recognize the need to partner with others to get stuff done. Innovative organizations connect interested individuals together so business plans can be shared and improved. Organizations like Google and 3M carve out time for employees to explore and dabble with new ideas—even a day a week.
Business plans can be presented to senior leaders for feedback and visibility. Rewards can be distributed for innovative ideas. An entrepreneurial desire for action needs to be fed a healthy diet of time, recognition, and connection to resources to make things happen.
Identify How to Keep Learning (Sustain It!)
The final step in fostering entrepreneurialism within an organization is sustaining it over time. The hiring of passionate people, the discussion of big ideas, and the promotion of riskier approaches, cannot be a fleeting experiment with an anxious hand ready to pull the plug. The organization needs to embrace learning and avoid the tendency to ask for innovation, while rejecting proposals that don’t fit nicely within preexisting assumptions. The premature death of a good idea is a wonderful way to extinguish future innovation. The organization needs to increase their comfort with failing small and fast, without punishing well thought out intentions. During each step of the innovation process, replace reluctance with curiosity to fully leverage entrepreneurial thinking.
High performing organizations crave growth; growth feeds on big thinking; and big thinking comes from people who feel like owners and not renters. Organizations that build on these four steps will find the right people and create the right environment to unleash the power of the inside entrepreneur!
We created a complimentary infographic, highlighting these 4 steps. Click here to download your copy.
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