Intrapreneurs Embracing Uncertainty in Innovation: A Reflection of VERGE NYC

by: Jennifer Ebert

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at Parson’s VergeNYC design conference, “Action in the Face of Uncertainty.” My work at ?What If! has taught me that navigating the market today and defining it for tomorrow requires a certain comfort level with and tolerance of uncertainty.

In partnership with Capital One Labs, we led a workshop focusing on the Intrapreneurs’ ability to create organizational change and growth while embracing uncertainty. Intraprenuers are the innovators of the organization, constantly navigating uncertainty, because everything is new terrain.

Innovators create ideas that are new to the world or reshuffle existing ideas into a new framework. There is uncertainty throughout the process, from capturing just the right insight to building a commercially viable product. Often when we innovate, there are no benchmarks to lean on, especially if we are creating something that didn’t exist. We are writing the textbook as we go. Innovation becomes an even tougher challenge within large corporate structures because there is a tendency to boil down uncertainty in order to eliminate risks, so that ideas are measurable within familiar frameworks, and so that people are comfortable with change. This process often results in the dilution of big ideas into smaller, incremental changes that won’t move the needle.

What role do intrapreneurs play? They encourage their organizations to embrace change and uncertainty. They know that new ideas often lack familiar parallels. Yet they live inside companies that often use ‘rear-view mirror’ metrics, looking for established benchmarks for measurement. Yet conversely, the lack of existing benchmarks can be a sign that an organization is onto something more expansive and potentially disruptive. Intrapreneurs know this because they are innovators; and they’ve seen the value of straying into the unknown and pushing through the torrent of uncertainty.

During Verge NYC, one of our workshop outputs was a visual Persona of the Intrapreneur — a large collage poster with personal qualities such as mindset, behaviors and actions, as well as visual images that represented those characteristics.

We also discussed qualities of successful intrapreneurs who are truly the new renaissance individuals in large organizations. They possess a balance of qualities that help them shepherd their organization to embrace uncertainty. Here are some of those qualities we discussed:

  • ZOOM IN / ZOOM OUT: The ability to see the broad picture and how various parts can work together / while also having a laser focus on the task at hand.
  • LONE WOLF / MASTER NETWORKER: The intrapreneur can often feel like the lone maverick as the key advocate for change / yet he or she must be a master networker to find allies inside the organization to cultivate that change.
  • DECISION MAKER / LIVE IN THE GREY: The ability to make tough decisions and pivot when necessary / while also embracing uncertainty at times when the outlook is a bit fuzzy.
  • DREAMER / REALIST: They are a maverick dreamer to encourage others to stretch/ while also being grounded the commercial realities of the business.

These qualities are purposefully contradictory. Much like the theory of complementary colors that together create striking effects, the opposing characteristics of the intrapreneur combine for the greatest impact.

We learned that assorted and incongruent qualities make up the rare and valuable intrapreneur in an organization. These characteristics arm intrapreneurs with the mindset and tools to drive change and innovation. If you are an intrapreneur, bravo — it takes guts, tenacity and patience. Organizations need to identify and encourage the development of the intrapreneur.

To learn more about Verge NYC, check out this behind the scenes video.

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