Recently, to my surprise, I noticed a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article pop up in my Twitter timeline – “Why There’s No Such Thing as a Corporate Entrepreneur” by Scott Kirsner.
For a minute, it was shocking to me – I was like, really? Are we serious? This topic was on my list for quite some time. I just didn’t get a chance to get to it. Impulsively, I wanted to respond to the HBR tweet (@HarvardBiz). I even drafted a tweet as my response but, decided not to send it. After all, I am not creative enough to convey my message in 140-280 characters!
The whole premise started with an assertion and a rhetorical question in the HBR article, “Can we please agree that there is no such thing as a corporate entrepreneur?”
A daemon process kicked off in back of my mind. I vividly started to read the article. Despite my initial skepticism that the HBR article was heavy and one-sided in favor of the term “entrepreneur,” I could not dispute most of the arguments made by the author in the article. A job well done!
In my view, the terms “entrepreneur” and “corporate entrepreneur” refer to two different set of individuals. They have a varied collection of objectives and unique risk-reward challenges that folks need to endure in each case. In some respect, comparing the two would be like comparing apples and oranges. The author inadvertently highlighted the differences that make the corporate entrepreneurs comparably a unique breed.
However, in the closing, the following quote of the article killed it:
Employees at large companies — let’s not call them corporate entrepreneurs — can often chalk it up to “organizational learning” and get reassigned to a new position.
Consequently, it is trying to take away the hope and a reason from corporate employees, who work passionately. Most of them have only one purpose in mind – to create ingenious solutions, services, and products for the companies and consumers at large. One of the primary reasons for introducing the Employee Stock Option Programs in the companies was to induce a sense of ownership among employees. The idea was to motivate them to innovate, not to lock themselves down to 9-5 mindset and schedule.
I would concede to the fact that the corporate entrepreneurship is not easy. (Again, I am not comparing it with the entrepreneurs in the business world.) In the corporate world, there is a lot more politics, an obscene amount of hard-work, higher chance of failure and a lot fewer rewards (financially) for one to be a corporate entrepreneur. Then, why do some would take pride in calling themselves, a corporate entrepreneur? Is it just a passion? Or is it just a sense of job satisfaction? I would say, all of the above.
Myths – No Risk and No Skin in the Game
Let’s address one of the key myths, that the corporate entrepreneurs don’t have any risk of losing anything and they don’t have any skin in the game.
[Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist or psychiatrist, nor do I have any professional degree in human behavior, and impacts to their emotional and mental health. The following are just my opinions based on my observations and experiences.]
I would argue that the employees who show characteristics of being a corporate entrepreneur are doing things by investing their soul (forget about the skin!) into the cause of whatever corporate work they might be doing. They work on a 24*7 cycle, even get labeled as workaholics, or worse, they don’t have a life. I would not for a second assume that this does not take a toll on their personal and family lives. If they get reassigned, demoted, or fired due to corporate politics, chances are someone else took their credit. I cannot fathom the emotional and mental toll this humiliation would take on people who genuinely are passionate about their work and take pride in it.
At times some scholars erroneously categorize them under some disorder and try to find ways to manage them. I would call these corporate entrepreneurs free spirits with a passion that every true corporate leader should cherish and appreciate. Yes, I would contend that there is not much one can do in the leadership, human resources, executive management to curb this behavior. If one wants to do anything, acknowledge this fact, and try to help remove obstacles and red tape wherever possible for these corporate entrepreneurs. These corporate entrepreneurs do have the right intentions and corporate mission at heart – just listen and talk to them – do not snub them in the name of (fake) deadlines and corporate policies.
Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Agility
On the topic of failure, often, corporate entrepreneurs are so pure in their intentions that they fall prey to the corporate sharks and wolves. There are practical approaches corporate entrepreneurs can learn and evolve to increase their chances of success, and manage the potential failure as part of the strategy. One of the universal tools is “minimum viable product” (MVP). Using the agile and an iterative approach with continuous feedback-improvement mechanism one can be successful in almost any industry and business domain. There are many books on this topic, but I liked, “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. In fact, there is a very encouraging quote in the book, “I make all of our managers read The Lean Startup.” – Jeffery Immelt, CEO, General Electric.
Corporate entrepreneurs do things like Matt Damon did in the movie, The Martian (2015), where he grew potatoes at an uninhabited planet with almost no resources and millions of obstacles, only with his sheer will, wit, hard-work, and instincts to survive in the uncooperative environment. In the context of fictional analogy, of course, one can argue that it was not “agriculture” and he was not a “farmer.”
- HBR Article – “Why There’s No Such Thing as a Corporate Entrepreneur” by Scott Kirsner https://hbr.org/2018/02/why-innovators-in-big-companies-dont-count-as-entrepreneurs
- The Martian (2015), a movie, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3659388/
- The Lean Startup (2011), a book, by Eric Ries