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Managing Discomfort: The Challenge of Being an Entrepreneur Inside an Organization

By Heidi Neck

Organizations are designed for efficiency and effectiveness, not entrepreneurship. In this context, clear job descriptions and success metrics are the guideposts, creating a sense of a certainty, job security, goal attainment, and a clear path of promotion.
 
Entrepreneurs inside organizations (EI) see a better way, and opportunities to develop new ideas, according to our new research. They are willing to take on the responsibility as the change agent to make possibility a reality. But, thinking and acting entrepreneurially can seem at complete odds with the organization’s need for predictable performance.
 

Exhibit 1: About our Research

The majority of participants we engaged (81 percent) were involved in three types of entrepreneurial efforts, ranging from the development of a new market-making innovation, product, service, or program (e.g., a new wellness plan) to the creation of an entrepreneurial culture within their organization or community (e.g., developing a culture that embraces customer-facing programmers within an S&P 500 company) to catalyzing change across a networked infrastructure (e.g., addressing food deserts through public-private community networks). The remaining 19 percent focused on strategic leadership efforts that allow for a complete rethinking of an organization’s strategy or innovation capabilities (e.g., a CEO of a product manufacturing company, a university president) or building a business within another business (e.g., an agent building a training consultancy within a real estate company).

EI live in a state of managed discomfort, according to our new research.  They know they are the cause of uneasiness in others due to their entrepreneurial actions. They also are learning how to help co-workers and leadership work through the discomfort as they try to find the necessary time and space to explore what’s possible.
 

It's Not A Job

Entrepreneurs inside see themselves as invested owners. They’re not merely executing what’s in front of them, they’ve tapped into something they care about at work. They’re invested in the organization’s overall mission and in the outcomes of their efforts in support of the mission.
EI describe this as taking responsibility, which includes figuring out better ways to do things, asking challenging questions, and finding the connection or fit between creating for oneself and for the organization’s mission. The rewards are great, including high levels of engagement and connection to the work, the knowledge of making a difference, learning and professional development, and the advancement of the organization.
For some entrepreneurs inside, there is little separation between who they are and what they do. Jess, a storyteller, spent 13 years as an employee at a community nonprofit “working hard” to align who she is with what she does. After creating a new position for herself and a new storytelling capability for her organization, she no longer sees a separation between work and life—her personal mission and the organization’s are one. For Jonah, founder and worker-owner in a local food cooperative, it’s about becoming an authentic participant, which often takes deprogramming from rote, passive behaviors learned through previous employment.
 

Operating Off The Org Chart 

Equal to the number of people who are hired into specified roles and asked to take on formal change and innovation responsibilities, there are employees who think and act entrepreneurially outside of the job they were hired to do. It’s a challenging balancing act that requires managing two identities—one’s official job title and that of the change agent.
For many, there’s a sense that operating off the org chart or cloaking entrepreneurial activities is the best way to get the chance to explore an opportunity or to develop some proof of the value of their idea. Jeff, a project manager at a social marketing software company, realized “it’s natural to run into some barriers at first” because his company feels the role he was hired into is where he should be maximizing his organizational impact. But, Jeff feels the trick is to show his company other ways in which he can add value and achieve high impact.
 
Other entrepreneurs inside refer to this as working at the edges of the firm, finding the space between things, making like a ghost to get past barriers, or seeking out the nooks and crannies. Rachel, a rabbi building a 21st century spiritual community, sees herself as an octopus: “With no skeleton, the octopus ... is capable of squeezing through small openings. In my work, I need to be nimble and responsible, and find those small openings to squeeze through.”
 

The Labels Of Others

Most people acting entrepreneurially within an organization don’t think of or refer to themselves as intra or entrepreneurs. They self-describe as connectors, conveners, catalysts, edge thinkers, change makers, agents, sparks, bridges, tinkerers, facilitators, innovators, and movers and shakers.
Whatever label they choose, all EI know their role—official or unofficial—causes discomfort within the organization, particularly among colleagues and team members. Entrepreneurs inside can get labeled as difficult to work with, quirky, or naive. People new to or struggling in the role feel relieved to find a label that describes (the value and concept of) “what I do,” and a simpler way to communicate this to others.
 
Those with some experience in the EI role accept the labels others ascribe to them, and work to demonstrate their value to overcome nonacceptance and resistance. Melissa, a self-described cooperative business developer who has always thought of herself as the facilitator of the group’s vision and capacity developer, realizes it’s often frustrating and demoralizing to attempt change within an organization. For her, it helps to have a concept for the role.
 

Too Little Time Is The Watchword

Time, or lack of it, is often one of the first things entrepreneurs inside share about their experience (whether consciously or subconsciously). Lack of time and a sense of being overwhelmed unites entrepreneurs inside. It’s something they instantly recognize in each other and across different organizational contexts.
Entrepreneurship requires a different mode of work and a different approach to time that most organizations cannot or do not accommodate. Paul Graham, essayist, programmer, investor, and co-founder of YCombinator, the Silicon Valley tech accelerator program, describes this as maker schedules versus manager schedules. Roles aside, the premise is that a day broken into hourlong chunks is conducive for meetings and communication, but not for work that requires deep thinking, creative problem-solving, writing, or making.
 
This work necessitates uninterrupted blocks of time. Today, meetings almost always take precedence—it can become an obsession to pack one’s calendar to feel needed or to avoid loss of status by showing for all of them. This leaves the interrupted work of entrepreneurship inside to be picked up and done during the insufficient moments between meetings or during off-hours.
 

Exhibit 2: Three Questions for Organizations

  1. How can we help EI get beyond being too busy: can we redesign organizational constructs to accommodate the time needs of entrepreneurial work or redesign the concept of a job into a series of entrepreneurial projects?
  2. How can we create opportunities for authentic participation?
  3. How do we make trying new things the norm not the exception?

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