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Intrapreneurship and the Public Sector: A Missing Capability

Retaining talented employees within an organization is one of the most severe challenges facing our public agencies. In recent times, public agencies have taken a beating on a number of fronts from budget cuts to having to contend with a frustrated citizenry and an increased demand for services. Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure to speak to public managers in federal, state, and local agencies. Without fail, most of them report that they are struggling to hold on to their best and brightest. Employees are being lured away to the private sector, or are looking to non-profits and non-governmental organizations as being more viable options for them to leverage their talent for social change. While losing an employee can be damaging in and of itself, the second-order and third-order effects can cause more lasting damage. Replacing talented individuals is no easy feat. Not only is talent scare, but the time it takes for a public agency to initiate and complete the hiring process (even if one does not need to go through the process for security clearances) will baffle most entrepreneurial individuals. So, do we just give up on the state of our human capital in public agencies? Do we rely more heavily on contracting agreements with the private sector when our agencies need critical skills and capabilities? Do we relegate public agencies as spaces where we hire the not so bright or individuals that value security of employment over being innovative and creative? These are just some of questions that I have been asking of senior executives and managers of public agencies.

While the answer to the above questions is often a resounding ‘no,’ most executives and managers in the public sector struggle with what to do. I believe that public agencies need to reorient their focus to becoming organizations where intrapreneurship thrives, is valued and rewarded, and becomes a core part of the organizational fabric. Intrapreneurship calls for the ability for building processes that enable employees within an organization to be entrepreneurs within the enterprise. Yes, I do mean enterprise. Public agencies should visualize themselves as enterprises with a mission to serve the public within the scope of their charters. A focus on being enterprise will not make an agency more or less ‘private,’ rather it will help the agency pay special attention to the critical asset that will help it achieve its mission – the ideas of employees. Employees need to be able to take their ideas, work on them within the agency, and commercialize them within, and beyond the agency, and then diffuse and implement them. While this may seem strange or controversial, it is not that earth shattering.

Consider the human resource unit of a public agency. Human resource managers are regularly trying new ways to recruit talented individuals and process applications quicker, create engaging interviews, and even deal with employee situations that arise after they are hired. Many of these managers do not ever have a chance to document their ideas. Seldom do individuals they report to advocate for their ideas or give them the necessary resources to run experiments with ideas. Even if an idea is found to be viable, the idea is seldom packaged with the same care as one would handle a product or service in the private sector. Furthermore, seldom does the employee get a chance to write about their ideas and share it beyond the walls of the agency and get external recognition and credit for the idea due to the impact it makes. It is hence not surprising that the employee feels they are undervalued and underappreciated.

In Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas within Your Organization (University of Toronto Press, 2011), a process on how to leverage ideas is outlined. The process is built around the following stages one has to go through to capitalize on ideas – idea generation and mobilization, idea advocacy and screening, idea experimentation, idea commercialization, and idea diffusion and implementation. Organizations that value employees and their talent need to have ways for employees to plug-n-play with their ideas as they conduct their daily tasks and achieve goals. A critical task towards the goal of building organizations that can support entrepreneurial employees is to align the expectations between managers and the employees that report to them. For example, most managers often find themselves with a situation where they are not starving for ideas, but rather employees who can work on ideas and take them from concept to reality. Employees, on the other hand, find themselves in a position where they feel that their ideas are not being listened to and respected. This simple misalignment comes from the fact that the two groups of stakeholders – the managers and the employees – have limited empathy towards the reality of the other. Similar misalignments play out when one is advocating and screening for ideas, and just about any other stage of intrapreneurship.


Here are five key considerations for public enterprises that want to retain their talent by focusing on enabling ideas to flourish within the organization.

1. Invest in building networks to transport ideas: Organizations can do themselves a load of good by helping employees connect with others who care about their ideas, can provide complementary skills to the development of ideas, and even advocate for the value of their ideas. Common practices include: 1) building social networks through online platforms, 2) hosting brown bag lunches where employees can present on their ideas to diverse audiences, 3) providing employees with connections to staff in allied agencies who are working on similar problems through creation of inter-agency teams, and 4) providing employees with incentives to connect with academic institutions in their communities.

2. Build capacity for employees to advocate for ideas: Most employees often hear about how their ideas were not selected due to a number of issues that arose during the screening process. Employees often are discouraged to even submit ideas for considerations (they can get better odds at Vegas). What employees need are idea advocates. So, assign managers to be idea advocates. This task does not have to be cumbersome. Just appointing formal idea advocates, and then organizing a mechanism (e.g. monthly meeting) through which idea advocates can share the ideas they have received and move them up the organizational ranks will do wonders in terms of boosting employee morale. Employees will appreciate the fact that they have an individual to talk to, and managers will gain from the collection and exchange of ideas that can benefit the public enterprise.

3. Promote experimentation and evidence-based decision-making: Do not invest in an idea or discard an idea without collecting some evidence that it will work. We are all natural experimenters, and employees experiment every day as they conduct their tasks. Unfortunately, most experimentation happens unconsciously and the results of which are never shared. Employees need to be given guidance on how to run experiments on their ideas and share the results of their experiments. Running experiments can involve having their co-workers test out new processes, share feedback, etc. Getting teams to collaborate on experiments is a good way to engage employees on their intellectual curiosities. Lessons learnt from experiments can not only help in future idea generation, but can also bolster the agency’s capacity to be receptive to new ideas.

4. Take commercialization seriously: Just because we are dealing with ideas that are mostly going to lead to process improvements within an organization, that does not mean that we need take commercialization less seriously. By focusing on how an internal idea is packaged, promoted, and priced (yes, there is a need to think of the price one has to pay to adopt a new practice instead of continuing to do things as is) will help employees and managers gain a better appreciation for the challenges associated with innovations. It is easier to invent than to innovate (inventions that make it to market). Bringing employees into the commercialization process allows them to see how their ideas are being transformed from concept into digestible units that can be consumed. Moreover, employees will gain from seeing how the packaging of ideas and their introduction into organizations requires careful attention to dynamics of change management

5. Diffuse employee ideas widely: While you cannot always give an employee monetary rewards for their talent and creativity, you can always help them get recognition of their work. Giving employees the time and resources for them to write about their ideas, whether it be for a magazine or even for a blog, will show that you care about their ideas. In addition, getting the public relations arm of your organization to do write-ups on employee ideas, get them submitted for awards and competitions, and even helping them be speakers at conferences will be immensely valuable. These rewards are valued much more favorably then the almost non-existent raise to their pay.

The bottom-line: build an organization that values employees as intrapreneurs and you will retain your best.


Author: Kevin C. Desouza is the Associate Dean for Research in the College of Public Programs; an Associate Professor in the School of Public Affairs; and the Interim Director for the Decision Theater in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University.  He can be reach via email at [email protected]


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One Response to Intrapreneurship and the Public Sector: A Missing Capability

  1. Jill Sandberg Reply

    May 30, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    It was refreshing to read Dr. Desouza’s article “Intrapreneurship and the Public Sector: A Missing Capability.”
    Most of us who work in the Public Sector do so in order to be a contributing force that meets the needs and improvements of the community where our families, friends and neighbors reside.
    Dr. Desouza makes a striking point that within these economic times, public organizations need to find creative ways in which to retain the valued knowledge base that career service employees provide. The necessity to find ways to provide movement within the organization as well as providing a means for the ongoing flow of creative ideas and innovations by employees are key.
    However, along with these needs, the public enterprise must also accept the collorary to innovation which at times can be failure. As Dr. Desouza states, these organizations need to provide an internal culture that allows for innovation. Public organizations need to ensure a secure and safe internal climate where employees are able to acquire a sense of accomplishment and recognition by presenting new ideas and innovative possibilities.
    Dr Desouza brings to light the need for attention to organizational climate – a necessary focal point for success of the overall public enterprise. To meet the demands of today’s employment culture, public leaders must have the drive and desire to retain valued employees by providing an atmosphere where these employees will thrive and therefore the organization will flourish.

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