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Oxymoron.  A figure of speech that combines two normally contradictory terms.  From some common expressions like “jumbo shrimp;” “paper towel;” and “working vacation;” to the slightly more cynical or humorous such as “airline food;” “business ethics,” and “bipartisan cooperation.”   We’ve all heard them -- or used them -- and had a laugh. 

Intrapreneur. An out of the box thinker; someone who recognizes the need for change within their organization…and boldly moves forward to make it happen.  Some may call them “rebels” or “mavericks,” but I prefer to think of intrapreneurs as people with a passion for their work or organization who truly want to make things better, and are willing to roll up their sleeves to overcome obstacles – and bureaucracy – to make a difference.

Many may see the term “government intrapreneur” as just another oxymoron…but I disagree.  Every day we seem to read about government organizations and leaders who seem determined to get in their own way – opposing constructive change, re-hashing old issues, nursing grudges, etc.  But, more than ever before, we also are starting to hear more about those individuals who are tired of the old image of public servants and the negative reputation of government – and are working actively to change it. 

Government Intrapreneurs

Government intrapreneurs are visionaries, armed with strong communication skills, willing to persevere in the face of opposition, and who have a deep passion for public service. Admittedly, even these talents aren't always enough to combat the barriers they face, due to some people’s desire not to disturb the status quo, but those tenacious intrapreneurs who are willing to crawl, climb, or push past obstacles can truly make a difference.

In 2013, former GovLab researchers Elizabeth Arnold and Shani Magia interviewed individuals who have successfully achieved meaningful change in government.   They talked with more than 20 civil servants across the US federal government, from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Labor, and collected some of the best “plays” intrapreneurs have used to overcome barriers. Although their strategies are wide-ranging, these intrapreneurs all seemed to share a few common qualities — they are resourceful and passionate, and feel a deep need to make the best of sub-optimal or difficult circumstances.

Some of the common strategies used by successful government intrapreneurs identified by Ms. Arnold and Mr. Magia include:

  • Connect seemingly unrelated dots – bring in ideas from the outside to supplement existing discussions or fill unmet needs.
  • Identify allies – build vibrant, energetic teams to pursue objectives.
  • Look for detours – finding detours around old ways of doing things, leveraging networks and building new connections is key to success.
  • Adopt a “beta” mindset – take time to test new ideas and allow stakeholders to buy in. Pilot programs can go a long way in driving acceptance.

Find an Advocate

As in so many arenas, leaders and executive sponsors play a big role in enabling the success of government intrapreneurs – and helping encourage a culture that is open to change and improvement.  Managers can aid intrapreneurship by helping navigate through organizational processes and procedures to achieve change.

A few additional tips include:

  • Incentivize intrapreneurship – recognize intrapreneurship as an organizational value.
  • Give intrapreneurs a “playground” – create a safe “pilot” space where intrapreneurs can experiment with new ideas without fear of losing their position or reputation.
  • Cheer on intrapreneurs – be an advocate for the intrapreneurs within your organization.  Managers who encourage new ways of thinking not only have happier employees, but engender loyalty.

Government organizations around the world can benefit from intrapreneurial thinking.  New ideas and more effective ways of doing things might be as close as the cubicle next to you!

To learn more, please read the great study “Intrapreneurship in Government: Making it Work” written by Elizabeth Arnold & Shani Magia on Deloitte University Press.