Think Big, Start Small. 11 Rules for Intrapreneurs.

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Once upon a tech company, a group of brilliant thinkers — gifted designers, visionary engineers, canny strategists — were plucked from their day-to-day roles, assembled into an All-Star Super Brain Force and given a single task: 

Create the future.

The future of what? Well, anything they wanted.

They would pick some aspect of human existence, rip it apart, figure out how their business could apply, and imagine a roadmap to that point. They spoke to university professors, policy leaders, and government agencies. They examined internal data, macroeconomic trends, and buying patterns.

And after a short, intense burst of research and ideation, they’d present their idea to the CEO to determine how or whether they’d spin out a new company to pursue it. Then they went back to their lab and did it again. True story.

Soooo, that’s not *quite* how innovation happens in the world of university operations, is it? You and I know that. That kind of blue sky work is typically the province of our faculty and students — and giving them the freedom to do so is critical to human progress. Enabling this process ranks among our highest purposes as fundraisers.

But when it comes to our own work, we often find it difficult to root out old inefficiencies or try new things. This isn’t because we aren’t creative, or smart, or driven. It’s not because we don’t realize when a process needs change. It’s not for lack of seeking new ways to engage and retain donors.

But if organizational change and product innovation were simple, there wouldn’t be hundreds of scholarly articles studying these topics, or a $150 billion global management consulting industry.

Why do we struggle to do things differently?

In Higher Ed, tight resources raise the stakes of trying something new. Established best practices help us apply our dollars and staff time effectively; when there are none, how do we know we’re on the right track? And if we fail, can we justify the resources we’ve taken away from strategies we’ve always used?

When innovation is riskier, we do it less…which makes it even harder and more intimidating. And yet if we don’t pursue new ideas, we fall behind.

So I offer a framework you can use to get your idea out of your head and into your organization. You may have other ‘rules’ you live by — I’d love to hear about them!

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1. Understand the problem, deeply, from all angles.

What — exactly — is the problem to solve? Where — precisely — does the roadmap from your starting point to your desired outcome break down? Why? If entrepreneurial alumni are giving at a lower rate than the general alumni population, what happens along the journey from alumnus to donor that sidelines this roadmap?

You need to know the factors involved in order to solve the problem. There’s a whole literature on root cause analysis (the 5 Whys Technique is a commonly known example), but don’t get hung up on the process. Don’t discount your own experience and curiosity in getting to the bottom of it.

Here’s the outcome of my own root cause analysis for why Advancement teams have trouble building connections with entrepreneurs. I asked a ton of questions, read a lot, and followed the info outside of my silo.

2. Know the barriers and incentives of each contributor in the system.

Solving the problem requires understanding how the players in the system are constrained or incentivized. Constraints might include cost and time, as well as legal requirements or campus policies. Spend time learning why these constraints are in place — and what it would take to change, address, or work within them.

Equally important are the incentives built into the way you work now. Think of the people or departments involved in the issue. What do they need to get their jobs done or achieve their objectives? What do they want? How are they measured? Is there anything you’re doing that actually makes their job harder if you’re successful? Can you modify it so that your incentives are aligned?

3. Do not fear criticism. Embrace it. 

Never avoid the barriers you might encounter when trying something new — on the contrary, embrace them. Don’t risk being surprised and set back. Instead, expose thorny issues, so that you can find a path forward for everyone.

4. Be willing to go outside of your functional area.

I can’t overstate the value of this simple principle. 

Today’s problems/opportunities rarely fall nearly into functional boundaries. Be curious about what happens in the steps before and after you get involved in a particular process. You’ll understand the system better, and find allies faster.

5. Think big — but start small.

Your grand vision may seem overwhelming to those who haven’t been considering the topic as deeply as you have. In our time and cash-strapped environments, big ideas can feel impossibly out of reach. Don’t risk closing off the road forward before you even get out of the garage.

Use this question to focus your efforts: What is the smallest possible action you can take, and still move forward? That’s your starting point. Resist the urge to add any element that isn’t easily executed or truly necessary. 

Don’t boil the ocean here — solving one piece of the puzzle makes the next step much more clear. It can validate your roadmap, or show you where to adjust. Higher Ed is attracted to sweeping rhetoric, but in fact, we often need to think *smaller* in order to make real change inside our organizations. 

6. Scale and scope until you can get a ‘Yes!’

Have you ever pitched an idea and seen shoulders slump or eyes glaze over? The idea slipped out of reach for your audience at that moment. 

You have two choices: expand their sense of what’s possible, or strip the idea’s components down until it seems achievable — or at least start-able. Depending on your own skills and influence in the organization, both paths may be available to you.

I favor the stripped-down approach. It forces me to consider the core of an idea and decide on the most fundamental piece of the puzzle I want to impact. Once you get results on this you can either re-tack, or take the next step, using your new data to earn more leeway to move in the organization. 

7. Find allies and incorporate their feedback whenever you can.

In a large, complex organization, you need allies who can help you test, scope, cheer, and deploy your innovation. It takes a village.

As you develop your idea, test it with these partners. Discover its break points — where does it become too costly/time-consuming/technically difficult/hard to understand? Can you work through that together? Can you simplify?

Stay true to your vision, but take serious note of their feedback and incorporate it whenever possible. This way, you create shared ownership of the solution across the organization.

Remember, your allies might not only be in Advancement — you may even find them outside the university. Bringing your alums into the process can provide powerful lift.

8. Leverage what already exists.

When time, money and attention are scarce resources, look around. What can you use among things that already exist on campus or the alumni community? Whose incentives are aligned with yours? When can the resources or constituencies you can access (alumni, funding for small events, etc) help others across campus?

9. Don’t lose sight of your main job.

Very few of us are able to innovate on full time. Connecting your innovation work back to your primary job function helps your manager and colleagues understand the value of the new project. The more closely you can tie the new project to your current KPIs — or the underlying factors that influence them— the better chance of success. 

10. Top down or bottom up? Both. 

Initiatives arise both from on-the-ground practitioners, and campus administrators dictating strategic moves. These groups use different sets of information to decided how they use their time and resources. Depending on your project, you may need both campus leadership and frontline staff in order to make your solution stick. Student groups operate quite differently from a Provost’s team, and while your idea may touch both in some way, you’ll need to adjust your approach accordingly.

Be mindful of the needs and goals of each group. Understand how they absorb data. Seek feedback from each group that helps you demonstrate the value of your idea, and keep each segment informed about how the other is adopting your solution.

11. Make it stick by documenting and supporting your solution.

A great idea (and all the effort to launch it) is worth nothing unless it’s actually used. To make it stick, document your new process or product. 

Support the colleagues who use your solution by answering their questions, or helping them practice your innovation. Continue to document its evolution. Be prepared to make the case repeatedly. Ensure that colleagues understand why the solution is needed, and how it will help them achieve their own goals.

You can use these principles to get started TODAY. Be patient, curious, and dogged — but not dogmatic — in your pursuit. And if there are other rules you rely on, let me know!