Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab

Elements of the Entrepreneur Experience

Experiences of
Entrepreneurs Inside

What a reverend, a public transit director, a community organizer, a bicycle manufacturer, an innovation network director, a university president, an acquisition analyst for the Department of Defense, and a food cooperative worker-owner, among others, can teach us about entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship as a means to deep connection to work

In the Spring of 2012, we set out to understand the experiences of people thinking and acting entrepreneurially within organizations—the entrepreneurs inside. We didn’t seek out the gated communities of corporations—the innovation units or skunks works most often referred to as intrapreneurship or corporate entrepreneurship. They receive the lion’s share of attention regarding entrepreneurship inside organizations. And we didn’t limit ourselves to businesses where the intrapreneurs are glamorized as the extreme innovators, mavericks, and risk-takers. Instead, we sought out a heterogeneous and diverse organization mix which included companies, government agencies, non-profits, religious entities, self-organizing entities and cooperatives; and looked for the people within these organizations who were trying to create something of value, be it a high-impact initiative, or a new division, department, product, service, process or practice.

A 2011 Gallup Employee Engagement poll found that 71% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” from their work. That’s almost three-quarters of the U.S. workforce emotionally disconnected from the work they do and from their organizations. Not so for entrepreneurs inside. With them, we find a group of people flourishing. People deeply connected to their work. People passionate about making a difference. People excited by the potential of the resources they have at hand and thinking about how they might combine them to create in new and innovative ways.

Setting human agency free

Most of today’s organizations were built through entrepreneurship but ironically are not built for entrepreneurship. Many EI spend intense amounts of time learning what it takes to get something unpredictable done in an inherently bureaucratic, often non-supportive, prediction-driven environment. Entrepreneurs inside have the capacity to change organizational behavior from within. They are the harbingers of what organizations need to think about and become in the very near future, if not now. Organizations willing to change might start with supporting entrepreneur behaviors by designing through the lens of EI rather than build artificial structures for special entrepreneurship activities. In the Lab, we are just beginning to explore what this might look like. But we’ll only get there by deeply understanding and connecting to the actual experiences of entrepreneurs inside.

Contrary to popular opinion, the experience of starting a new venture and entrepreneurship inside organizations is not that different. But while we’re supportive of entrepreneurial behavior in the world of start-ups, we haven’t successfully translated or sponsored that behavior inside organizations. The difference lies in a belief that structure can make a difference and that structure enables entrepreneurial activity to emerge inside existing organization.  This volume of work shatters the structural view.  We put the behavior of the entrepreneur inside at the center of our attention. Organizations are not entrepreneurs, people are.

The experiences of entrepreneurs inside

It’s not a job for them—entrepreneurs inside are invested owners. But, thinking and acting entrepreneurially can sometimes seem completely at odds with an organization’s need for process and efficiency, causing a state of discomfort within the organization and among co-workers. EI learn to manage the discomfort that comes from challenging traditional structures and norms in themselves and within others.

Organizations rely on the interchange of research and data, policies, plans and PowerPoint decks. But these vehicles are best at conveying facts, figures, and what’s been done rather than inspiring new possibilities, choices and potential outcomes. An iterative dialogue, storytelling helps align people’s values with new possibilities. Entrepreneurs inside use stories to help people see why they should change and how they should act.

Entrepreneurship inside can feel quite solitary. It helps to find those who are living the same experience, but this can often be hard to locate or cultivate within an organization. In response, many entrepreneurs inside look outside for places to connect with like-minded people, for inspiration and to replenish energy stores and maintain momentum.

Supportive or dysfunctional, entrepreneurs inside cite an organizational framework that becomes their home base and jumping off point. How close to or outside of the cultural norms present in an organization can play a significant role in an EI’s experience. Decoding organizational habits can also help EI discover the path forward.

Social capital provides entrepreneurs inside with the freedom to try new things. But, accrued social capital can only be achieved over time and by demonstrating success. Until there’s proof of value, consistency in one’s ability to commit, to act, and to follow-through is the only currency entrepreneurs can trade on. Missteps in managing relationships can quickly erode hard-earned capital leading to anything from damaged reputation, loss of autonomy and/or the trust of others to jeopardized career growth.

Entrepreneurs inside have embraced experimentation. Many of the organizations they work for have not. EI push past what they know, or create new ways of thinking by acting their way into knowing. Capturing what’s learned from each attempt is key to “knowing what not to do next time around” or “discovering another way down the road.” Experimentation strengthens an organization’s success and failure responses, critical to adaptation and growth. It is the core of entrepreneurship inside organizations.

To successfully win the investment of others (support from executives and other employees in the form of sponsorship, resources, time and skills), EI must understand what the implementation of an idea is going to cost people in the organization and, more importantly, how the investment will benefit others and the organization. The capacity to influence is paramount as others in the organization control resources, limit access, hold critical knowledge and have valuable skills. Being prepared to address the limitations of traditional evaluation metrics can help prevent ideas from being killed off too quickly.

EI often have little control over the assembly of teams or team building processes. By default then, they tend to become great taxonomists classifying the varying personalities, behaviors, knowledge and skills in others. This classification can help EI build better working relationships and reduce the effort-intense task of identifying appropriate expertise.