Cheryl Heller

NexThought Monday: Unlocking Intrapreneurship with Language

If it is true, as has been said, that all change begins with language, then it is equally true that the inability to change begins with language as well.

The wealth of jargon used to describe intrapreneurship (itself a bit of jargon), innovation and corporate social responsibility is more exhausting than enriching, and as their importance becomes more evident, the labels and complexities grow. What’s the difference between corporate social responsibility, cause branding, cause marketing, and a triple (or sometimes lately double, as if we can just decide to leave the environment out of it) bottom line? Should companies now stop all their work on sustainability in order to focus on resilience? Has all independent thinking, or even perhaps all generative thinking inside big organizations become intrapreneurship? What’s the difference between social innovation and innovation? What’s the relationship between design thinking and innovation? What’s the difference between disruptive innovation and incremental innovation? Is some innovation more innovative than others and is more innovation always better? And does anybody else see this as a silly and dangerously circuitous trap of our own devising?

Intrepreneurship, innovation and corporate social responsibility (along with all their nuanced pseudonyms) are labels for activities and values that are used in order to separate them from business as usual. Of course, the cost of that to business is high, since they have become something separate from the normal life of a corporation, and they shouldn’t. I spoke recently to a very smart woman from an international bank who said she was determined not to call the innovation work she was carrying on within the company innovation so that it would be seen as “just part of people’s jobs.” It’s brilliant thinking. While the potential drawback to her is lack of visibility and “trendy” status, the benefits are worth it; it makes good, creative work an expectation instead of an extracurricular activity, and it’s less likely to be chopped the first quarter that financial expectations are not met.

Adding to the confusion, companies succumb to the organizational habit of adding rather than fixing. A company is afraid of environmental risk, instead of fixing that, add a chief sustainability officer or CSR department. The company has a disengaged culture, instead of fixing it, create a superficial program to raise morale. At one company I know, because no one had time to think long term about innovations, instead of making it central to the mission, a “Wonder Team” was formed, whose job it was to wonder what the future might be like. Not surprisingly, they never had time to meet.

In a recent HBR article, Scott Anthony writes about how “Big Companies can Unleash Innovation, Rather than Shackle It.” He cites the example of Medtronic, a company that has, since it’s founding, been built on breakthroughs and is now demonstrating how to do it at a massive scale. Most recently, they’re piloting affordable diagnosis and pacemakers for rural Indians. At $16 billion, Medtronic has the right combination of size, knowledge, category depth, distribution and motivation. Was an intrapreneur involved? For sure. Maybe even a whole company of them.

Do we imagine that at Medtronic, people have as many words for innovation as the Inuits have for snow*? Is it likely that they consider entrepreneurial thinking “above and beyond” what’s expected?

It is precisely this arbitrary delineation between normal and extraordinary behavior that lulls us into believing that it’s OK if we don’t figure out how to overcome the quotidian, urgent challenges of business in order to make time for new ideas.

Creativity, clarity of purpose and social responsibility should never be seen as someone “thinking beyond their job description.” In fact, only when it is their job description will we see lasting change, happier employees and healthier companies.

The answer is simply, but not so easily, to simplify. Like revisiting the core values that a company holds as its purpose and the core commitments that a team member makes to that company, we can revisit the essential words we need to create, express and act on ideas. Adding words, complexity, distinctions that obfuscate rather than facilitate keep our brains in a kind of jail. They separate us from each other because of our education, status in an organization, job function. Instead of helping us share common principles and processes, they create divisions and more silos. And in perhaps the worst crime of all, they eat up the hours of our days that could be spent creating just talking about them and trying to keep them all straight.

Just for fun, take a look at the labels you use and see how many you can eliminate. Let’s go back to business as usual, but let’s make sure our definition of business includes enlightened creativity.

Cheryl Heller chairs the first MFA in Design for Social Innovation. Heller also is the founder of Heller Communication Design and Board Chair of PopTech.

Editor’s note: Ashoka and Accenture have teamed up to launch a new competition that seeks creative fixes for business and society: “The League of Intrapreneurs: Building Better Business from the Inside Out.” The best 15 entrants will form the inaugural League of Intrapreneurs, join an elite network of global innovators, and receive big-time media and press coverage (including a feature in a globally distributed intrapreneur toolkit). The top four winners will be profiled Fast Co.Exist and receive consulting support from Accenture Development Partnerships. Find out more here.

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