How intrapreneurs find executive sponsors

Finding a sponsor can be frustrating!

Have you ever had a great idea and went to your manager for support but found they were just not interested in it?  Did nothing come out of it in the end, and you were disappointed?  Perhaps, you just turned to the wrong sponsor for your project, a common mistake of intrapreneurs. Here are some thoughts on whom to turn for with ideas to make them happen within an organization.

Looking for a sponsor?
Looking for a sponsor?

Intrapreneurs are ‘executive champions’ that connect people with specific ideas (‘technical champions’) to ‘business champions’ who can provide the resources to make this idea happen; typically an executive sponsor providing funding and political support.  More on intrapreneurship at The Rise of the Intrapreneur and the intrapreneurial role of the executive champion at How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3).

Managers and leaders innovate differently

Let’s look at the ‘business champion’ or executive sponsor.  It is crucial to understand the motivation of executive sponsors for a simple reason: only if your idea or proposition fits their agenda are they be willing to listen to you and getting actively involved.   Consider that they take on risk too in supporting as poor results also reflect on them.  You need to know whom to turn to for what kind of idea to find adequate support.

For an intrapreneur, it is critical to understand the nature of the executive position.  More specifically if you approach a manager or leader to find support for an innovative idea.

Managers and leaders look at innovation differently, hence both groups innovate very differently and for different reasons.  It translates directly into their understanding of what ‘innovation’ is, its risks and rewards, and consequently their willingness to listen to you.  Turing to the wrong executive easily gets your idea rejected and you may not even know why.

Let’s take a look how the views of managers and leaders differ and how this molds their understanding of innovation and what kind of change.  On a side note organizations need both, managers and leaders.  Each role serves a different yet necessary purpose in the organization; see “Leadership vs. Management? What is wrong with middle management?

Managers focus on predictability

Managers are charged with running the daily business smoothly.  They manage a well-oiled ‘machine’ of people, tools and processes to deliver a certain output, a product or service, reliably and at a fixed cost ceiling.

The paramount goal for managers is business continuity – it is the daily bread and butter of the organization and what pays your employee salary today.  Running a fast-food restaurant is a good example, the expectation here is predictability: to deliver food to the customer at a specific quality level with as little variability as possible at a defined cost and within a certain time.  A competent manager delivers this predictability reliably over and over again.

With operational targets clearly defined, the appetite for improvements focuses on speeding up the process or cut cost here and there without compromising quality.  Favorable changes to the status quo are small, gradual tweaks.  This is the world of optimization and continuous improvement.

Little risk, little gain

Managers need to keep the risk small to fail or to jeopardize the production process with its predictable output.  The low risk of disruption comes at a price though as it limits also returns.

Here innovations are primarily of non-disruptive nature, they are incremental or evolutionary.  This approach is process driven.  It lends itself to automation as it aims to make the process repeatable, reliable, predictable.  No senior executive needs to be closely involved in operations to keep this ‘machine’ running; it comes down to the floor manager executing.

This is also the environment of a conventional development project, the ‘next version’ of something and ‘getting it right the first time.’

With an incremental change in focus, managers tend to look for ideas in their own organization, think ‘suggestion box’.  It means following a clearly defined and detailed process with development stage-gates or other review mechanisms that filter ideas typically the criteria of cost, time, quality and, more recently, variations thereof such as customer satisfaction and being ‘green’ and sustainable.

Managers are interested in learning about ‘best practices’ from outside the organization but are often enough reluctant to adopt and implement them if they appear to be risky and disruptive.

Leading in uncertainty

Leaders face a different challenge. They ask: what needs to be done to prepare the organization for success several years down the road with much uncertainty ahead? – Well knowing that the answer may disrupt the established organization.

It is this uncertainty that opens up the so-called ‘fuzzy front-end’ (FFE) to develop entirely new products or services: It is too early to know exact specifications of a solution at this time, the future markets and technologies are yet unknown.  Leaders focus is on getting a deep understanding of the problems that customers face to develop the technology and capability to address and monetize them.

Disruptive transformation

What we talk about here is, for example, a completely new product line, a major (adjacent) product line extension or a new (transformative) business model entirely.  Think how Apple’s iTunes Store started selling digital media and apps has changed the way we use technology and whose devices we use (hint, hint) – this gamble worked out for Apple and was based on a deep understanding what customers are willing to pay for.

With nebulous solutions in far sight, a tightly governed development process with stage-gates makes little sense because this development model is designed for incremental change and tuned for refinement.  It stifles the creative and broad view necessary to create something completely new in an unpredictable and yet undefined scenario of the FFE where much imagination, creativity, and flexibility is needed.

Creative with discipline

However, flexibility and creativity do not thrive only in the absence of discipline or some sense of order.  The early-stage research or design process does not need to be chaotic – it’s quite the opposite.  A company like IDEO, for example, operates successfully in this space and is famous for their disciplined process and methodology in producing creative and tangible prototypes over and over again.

Note, we are not talking about final products ready to go on the self in your neighborhood store tomorrow.  Check out this case study on how IDEO works in more detail: What does it take to keep innovating? (part 1 of 3)

This transitional step narrows down the broad funnel of uncertainty to develop a range of concepts towards increasingly detailed specifications of the final product.  The development of the final product itself is better left to the established development organization – back to the managers to cross the t’s and dot the i’s, if you will.

Active sponsorship needed

With disruption and revolutionary change comes high risk.  The outcome is unpredictable and the reward uncertain, failure is likely.  Yet, if the gamble works out the rewards can be enormous and the key players ‘rainmaker’.

When exploring which direction to go, the serial intrapreneur’s approach is trying many things.  Expect to fail most of the time.  See what ‘sticks’ and explore this option more.

Rather than rigid procedural guardrails, intrapreneurs need to secure top executive sponsorship for their continued active support, political weight and funding.  Thus, for a unique and exploratory venture what you look for is a leader, not a manager.  There is no staged process to follow really, only success determines what was right or wrong.

Maxwell Wessel’s blog for HBR on “How to Innovate with an Executive Sponsor” has some good practical tips for especially if your project takes the company down the disruptive, transformative route.

What kind of sponsor to you need?

Distinguishing the professional motives of managers and leaders comes down to the question of ‘Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?

In general, leaders act more as strategic innovators and game-changers assuming the role of a Sponsor or an Architect while managers take more renovation-associate roles such as a Coach or an Orchestrator.  Follow the above link for a more detailed description of these roles and when to chose which role.

Which direction to take?
Which direction to take?

What is my idea again?

Start by taking a hard look at your idea first to find out which category it falls into.  Then decide what kind of sponsor, a manager or a leader, is best suited to approach and is, therefore, most likely to listen and catch interest.

Even better if you can already identify the role associated with the nature of your project (Coach, Orchestrator, etc.) which helps you framing and pitching the idea or a specific project to the appropriate executive sponsor in your organization.

Author: Stephan Klaschka

Stephan Klaschka is an awarded innovation executive, C-level consultant, Intrapreneur, and serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of international work experience. He held various senior business operations, strategy, regulatory compliance and innovation roles with Boehringer Ingelheim, leaving as Director of Global Innovation Management and Strategy. In this first-of-its-kind position, Stephan's work was central to the new growth rejuvenation strategy as a catalyst to initiate and drive pivotal innovations, leadership development, and disruptive and digital transformation across the Boehringer Ingelheim group worldwide. He has recently served as CEO interim of the "German Institute for Telemedicine and Health Promotion" (DITG). Stephan holds Masters Degrees in Computer Science, Management, and Business Administration as well as advanced degrees in Strategy, Innovation, and Leadership from leading schools in Europe and the United States. PMP certified. He has published extensively and created award-winning workshops on topics including intrapreneurship, healthcare, pharma, and new technologies. Stephan currently consults independently out of New York.

4 thoughts on “How intrapreneurs find executive sponsors”

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