5 Key Roles in Innovation (and Social Enterprise)

1697416This post does double duty: 1) It will introduce you to a key part of an excellent and very useful book, and 2) get you thinking about what we feel is the starting point for establishing a successful enterprise development strategy: building the enterprise team. Intrapreneuring in Action, written by Gifford Pinchot and Ron Pellman, is accurately described as a "practical, hands-on guide [that] shows individuals how to cut through the 'corporate immune system' to turn their ideas into profitable realities." While this book was written for a corporate audience, it is relevant for anyone who wants to innovate within their existing organization, especially nonprofits, community groups and public agencies that may have a risk-averse culture.

Early in the book, the authors introduce the "Crucial Roles in Innovation" that need to be present and working together for innovation (including but not limited to social enterprise) to thrive.  They are as follows:

Idea People - These are the folks who come up with the initial idea - "Wouldn't it be cool if..." - something that might turn out to be an actual opportunity worth pursuing.  While some people get the reputation for being the "idea people" within an organization, the authors stress that everyone is capable of the kind of creativity that spawns great ideas.  Our experience certainly supports this.  Moreover, some people are uniquely positioned to see new ideas and opportunities.  Consider the person at your organization who answers the phone and greets visitors.  They are the person - perhaps the only person - who hears requests every day for products and services that your organization doesn't offer but could; products and services that could profitably serve your community.   We need to encourage everyone (and especially the people on the front lines) to become alert to this and actively engage them in identifying new enterprise ideas.

Intrapreneurs - Internal entrepreneurs, or intrapreneurs, may or may not be the people who come up with the ideas, but they are the people who "roll up their sleeves and get things done".  In social enterprise, we call these people Enterprise Champions, and they are the people who take personal responsibility to develop and launch a new enterprises.  I like to say that there can be no entrepreneurship without an entrepreneur, and intrapreneurs fulfill this role within existing groups or organizations.  Within nonprofits and public agencies, intrapreneurs are usually program delivery people; within communities, intrapreneurs are the folks who organize the block parties and fund-raisers.  You know who they are.

The Intrapreneurial Team - While the role of the intrapreneur is critical, it can be a lonely, draining experience.  Lone intrapreneurs can lose perspective, waste time doing unnecessary work, get stalled because they lack that one critical connection or skill, or just burn out from lack of support.  This is where the intrapreneurial team comes in.  They are the pit crew who provide fresh perspective, advice, access to networks and skills, and emotional support to the intrapreneurs who are running the race.  In the social enterprise world, we call this group the Enterprise Team.  Enterprise Teams within nonprofits are often set up as ad hoc committees, composed of the executive director, selected program staff, a board member (ideally someone with small business experience), and a couple "wildcards" - an idea person, someone with a strong understanding of your customers, and/or someone with recent experience with starting a small business (an entrepreneur or commercial lender will work).

The Sponsor - Sponsors make a number of important contributions, namely they:

  • "Create a compelling vision that calls for and focuses innovation efforts,
  • Bet on people, not just ideas or plans,
  • Take the time to coach and guide the intrapreneurial team and the intrapreneurs,
  • Anticipate political obstacles and block oncoming tacklers, and
  • Provide resources themselves or coax resources and permissions out of others."

In nonprofits or public agencies, the sponsor is often the executive director, senior manager or sometimes an engaged board member.  In the community context, sponsors are often community leaders or sometimes elected officials.

The Climate Maker - Unlike sponsors, who will take an active role in supporting specific innovations or enterprises, the climate maker is concerned with creating a culture where people feel safe and are encouraged to be creative and take risks.  In nonprofits and public agencies, climate makers are often senior executives or board chairs.  In communities, climate makers are community organizers, other active volunteers, or elected officials.

How it Plays Out in Small Organizations In small organizations or groups, people generally wear multiple hats, and innovation and social enterprise are not excepted from this.  For example, the executive director of a small nonprofit may be the idea person and intrapreneur for one idea, and the sponsor or climate maker for others.  What's important is recognizing the need for these different roles and ensuring that you've got them filled.  And, for most of us, it means that we will need to enlist others to play roles that we can't, don't like, or aren't that good at.

If you're serious about getting into social enterprise, or perhaps already are, I encourage you to think about who might fill these roles within your organization or group, and who else you might need.  And please feel free to contact us if you'd like to talk this through.