The “Future of Work”. This phrase may conjure up flying cars, artificial intelligence, and robots taking over our jobs. While that may be off in the far distant future for many of us, there are changes taking place right now that are positively impacting how we work, interact, and accomplish our jobs and agency missions. One such change that has been occuring is the integration of “INTRApreneurship” into the federal workplace. 

Wikipedia defines Intrapreneurship as: 

“...the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization. Intrapreneurship is known as the practice of a corporate management 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.”

So, in short: it’s embracing the mindset and skills of an entrepreneur with the safety net of a full time job. However, unlike creating a startup company, there are new challenges to face like bureaucracy, outdated systems, and--especially in the government--a risk averse culture. 

Since I started as a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow in 2015, I’ve been studying how culture change and transformation happens within the largest bureaucracy in the world, the US Federal government. This program, which is a joint partnership between the White House and the General Services Administration (GSA), brings in “entrepreneurs-in-residence” to the federal government for several years to rethink or re-imagine how the government conducts its business. I’ve been embedded at GSA since the beginning of my fellowship. Due to the nature of the work at GSA, I’ve worked with thousands of people in more than 150 different agencies to see how they “cut the red tape” of government and innovate despite the odds stacked against them. 

During our research, we’ve discovered that government intrapreneur exhibit specific traits. Intrapreneurs are committed to solving the right problems, and also solving the problems right. Here’s what we’ve learned about government intrapreneurs, and the  top ten traits that stand out among these federal innovators: 

  1. Internally motivated, externally focused: Many of us in government joined because we want to make the government better for the American public. In addition, those who are the innovators in government forge their own path and don’t wait for external forces to motivate them to action. However, these innovators cutting governmental red tape are aware of the barriers and constraints that exist either within the government or outside and create strategies to overcome them. What’s more is that they even think of the value that their solutions have on the greater good.

  2. Empathy: One of the most foundational elements of being a true change maker is tapping into the needs of yourself and of others as you proceed with your plans. Empathy is essential as you talk to potential customers/users and also as you tell your story to build a coalition around the change/movement around your ideas. If you can’t put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side, success is going to be harder to accomplish. Empathy is a key component of Human-Centered Design or Design Thinking.

  3. Positivity: Knowing that there is a better way forward and you can be a catalyst for change is absolutely essential to intrapreneurship. Intrapreneurs inherently have a growth mindset, which a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck to describe the underlying belief about learning and intelligence, that we have agency to learn and “grow”. Those who put in extra time and effort will lead to higher achievement and a better more positive future. Dr. Dweck’s research contrasts a growth mindset with a fixed mindset, which is the belief that human learning and intelligence is unchangeable and therefore fixed.

  4. Comfort with ambiguity: Creating something from nothing requires a type of person who is okay with the unknown. It’s by sensing what the users need and want and what external factors are shaping the market that should shape the path forward, not our own assumptions and biases. The creative and innovation processes are inherently a beautiful yet messy process--embrace it. 

  5. Tenacity and persistence: Many of the projects that innovators/intrapreneurs take on feel like it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill. There’s going to be resistance to your idea because by definition it’s counter to the culture that exists. The best people to push change towards a 21st century government are people who co-create a shared vision and take calculated risks within their area of influence, pursuing that vision ruthlessly while tapping into the empathy that I mentioned earlier.

  6. Curiosity: Intrapreneurs act like detectives around a specific problem set and dive head first into all aspects of the problem. The best intrapreneurs are curious about the world around them and ask questions like: Why does this policy exist? How is this done? Why have we always done it this way? 

  7. Problem-focused not solution-focused: In the federal space, decisions are usually informed by our own experiences, stories, and biases, which leads to “design by committee”, which is informed by assumptions and not real data from users. True intrapreneurship involves being aware of our assumptions, talking to the user, validating assumptions, receiving frequent feedback, iteration and collaboration, not closed-door meetings. Intrapreneurs get to the true root of the problem, not just solve a symptom of it and stays with the problem first before any solutions are presented.

  8. Wearing multiple hats: Intrapreneurs/innovators are not well versed in a specific area of expertise (“I-shaped people”). They are thought of as “T-shaped people”: those with broader skills and knowledge who learns by linking different perspectives and specialties together. T-shaped people are better at fostering the diverse connections and conversations that bring exceptional ideas to the surface. 

  9. Reflection and self awareness: Empathy for others is core skills to have, but empathy for self is also critically important. Innovation and intrapreneurship relies on self-awareness on how they show up in the world, and constant reflection on where you have been, where you are now, and where you may want to go in the future. Without sensing the needs of user and yourself, the likelihood of success is greatly diminished. And, failure is inevitable when you’re trying something new, and its through reflection and self-awareness where you will learn and grow. 

  10. Continuous improvement: Growth and creating a 21st century government at its core is about the Build-Measure-Learn cycle that comes from Lean Startup: starting small (Build), measuring impact and receiving feedback (Measure), and synthesizing the feedback/data to learn (Learn) what is the best course of action. Intrapreneurs prescribe to being Agile, which is a form of iterative and responsive design, implementation and management of projects. 

There you have it! In closing, I want to point out one more thing on a bright note: while our research suggests that these ten traits are essential to intrapreneurs, what’s great is that many of these traits are learned and not just traits we are born with. For this reason we created the Better Government Movement, which is the “people” side of change we want to see in the government world. So if you have a growth mindset and want to learn more, we’d love to see and help you grow even more to build the 21st century government we all deserve.

Learn more about the six principles or “plays” of public sector innovation and more about how to apply these principles through the four verticals of innovation found in the Innovation Playbook and Toolkit here.


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