Intrapreneurial Behavior and Robert’s Rules (2 of 2)

By Cheryl Kiser, Managing Director of the Lewis Initiative at Babson College

In interviewing Robert it was clear that building a new venture within a large scale organization such as eBay was challenging, and required the discretionary effort of those employees who had day jobs but were motivated by the idea of addressing a social challenge through the company’s core business assets.

Some of “Robert’s Rules” that he’s drawn from his experience are:

1.  Learn as much as you can about the opportunity you’re pursuing

Understand the market deeply.  Prior to formalizing their operational plan, Robert and his team had conversations with over 125 industry organizations and target consumer groups to understand the landscape, gain new knowledge and discover opportunities. They also learned as much as they could about how to adapt eBay’s core business to their new market.

2.  Think big – don’t limit yourself

Robert’s idea might have been simple but it was not small.  It was about economic development,  and creating market access for the world’s entrepreneurs.  Wondering with whom he should talk, early on he picked up the phone and called The World Bank. Eventually he got to a senior director who told Robert that his timing could not have been more perfect because they had been talking about ways to create more market demand for artisans and producers throughout the world. Various teams at The World Bank had expertise in economic development, and were experts in identifying supply from global producer groups. Shortly after that initial call, eBay began working with The World Bank to develop plans for greater market access for international producer groups.  

3.  Inspire your internal champions 

Robert started looking around the organization for individuals who were willing to support his team with resources.  Working informally, he and his team inspired others within the organization to lend capital, ideas, and technology support that helped ensure forward progress. In creating new unfunded innovative ideas, it is important to mobilize people within your organization who are willing to do whatever it takes to make a good idea happen.

4.  Disruption is vital to innovation and progress

 As an intrepreneur thinks about a business opportunity, it’s his or her responsibility to the company to think about growth.  It’s fascinating for the whole organization when you create a cohesive story and build an opportunity that looks compelling and interesting enough.  You begin to build a lot of momentum and everyone grants you the authority to scale the experiment.

5.  Break free from traditional processes, but align with the strategy of the organization 

6.  Stay authentic

When you know what you are good at it is then easier to understand what you need from external partners and bring that knowledge back into the organization.  In a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies can’t simply afford to rely on their own research and their own resources.

The key is to know what external information to bring inside and what internal information needs to be shared outside the company.  It’s a mindset of open innovation.  eBay would not be as successful as they are with any of their citizenship programs were it not for the deep partnerships that have been built with external organizations.

7.  Achieve the right intrapreneurial balance

 It is imperative that while creating new ventures within a large organization, to balance being part of but separate enough from the core business to spur innovation.  You require autonomy to create space for innovation, but you must lay the groundwork for the new venture to eventually be absorbed into the business to achieve scale. Companies can succeed in creating new social ventures by melding internal cultures while avoiding extreme behavior. If you get the balance right, the development of new social enterprises within the company can flourish.

The balancing act has to be managed in two areas:

1. Trial-and-error strategy with rigor and discipline

  • Really understand your customers to identify their needs
  • Iterate quickly and build prototypes to test assumptions about your business mode

2. Use both financial and social impact milestones to measure progress

  • Operate with something old plus something new 
  • Source experienced talent from within the company, and blend them with ideas from new talent from the outside
  • Don’t recreate the wheel – leverage as many internal resources & technologies as possible

8.  Build a high performance team

When building a venture inside of an organization you really have to think about your team as not just the folks immediately around you, within your silo, but to think about your team as a network across the organization.  For the eBay citizenship ventures to work, it was important to go beyond traditional corporate structure.

the marketing team touches the product development team; the product development team touches the corporate communications team who in turn touches the citizenship or CSR team.

A lot of the innovation comes between the spaces where the marketing team touches the product development team; the product development team touches the corporate communications team who in turn touches the citizenship or CSR team.

This idea of a cross-functional team is critical because it allows employees to have the space and time to experiment and innovate.  It begins to break down the traditional notion of where teams should reside.  Who are the best people in the organization that can champion your idea?  Ask them to join the team.  It can really establish a strong foothold for building the idea and the venture, especially in the early stages when your resources are constrained.  It’s critical to cut across the organization.

Last fall, Robert was appointed Director of Global Citizenship at eBay.  Early on, Robert’s focus was on how things get built, how ideas originate, how they grow.   Now that these programs are built and launched the focus is on achieving scale.

As I concluded my interview with Robert, I reflected on my many experiences and conversations with individuals who are inside of companies driving and creating corporate citizenship programs.  I think about the many constraints that they run into when asking for what they want in order to create the kinds of innovative impactful programming that achieves the sweet spot that Robert was able to set in motion at eBay.

In the past I would counsel people on how best to communicate impact, align with strategy, enroll others, do the “right things” to convince others of their ideas. While that is still important, I think what might be more important is to look at yourself and ask how can I apply ETA — using who I am, what I know, whom I know and current available resources — to set in motion an entrepreneurial process that just might open the aperture for a clearer picture of how to create both business and social impact in ways you might never have thought of before.