Intrapreneurship: The Art of Innovation and Influence

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This is the third article in the Propel Her – Defence Women’s Leadership Series by Lyndsay Freeman and Shamsa Lea.

You might purely associate ‘intrapreneurship’ with tech startups and meetings on exercise balls with frappuccinos. Not very ‘military’ at first glance, but fostering a culture of intrapreneurship has immense value for the ADF. Let’s explore why, and how you can build on your passion for creativity and innovation within your sphere of influence in Defence. 

Intrapreneurship at its foundation involves adopting an entrepreneur’s mindset to innovate within the organisation. Intrapreneurs exhibit similar qualities to the individuals that the ADF aim to employ – being proactive, analytical and creative problem solvers who think outside the box to keep the ADF at the forefront of pursuing innovation to address future threats and to modernise its capability. Along with the benefits to the capability, embracing innovation and adaptation also capitalises on the immense amount of talented, highly educated and highly trained people in its workforce. 

Pioneering computer scientist Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper declared: “The most damaging phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way’.” This imperative for forward thinking, particularly in times of disruption and change, means that the ADF needs intrapreneurs at all ranks and trades. From hackathons to industry collaborations, militaries around the world are investing in supporting their people to challenge the status quo, and the ADF is following suit with initiatives like the Defence Entrepreneurs Forum (DEFAUS) and Plan Jericho

Innovative ideas from all levels are helping to reshape and modernise the ADF. As DEF US Executive Director Jim Perkins advises “No rank has a monopoly on good ideas”. Examples of projects recently initiated by junior members include: trials of 3D metal printing capability in the field, a bomb impact tracking system to discover unexploded ordnance in air weapon ranges, and a Multi Rotor Unmanned Arial Systems (MRUAS) capability to bridge the current gap in surveillance and security of air fields.

You don’t need to develop a ground-breaking new project to channel an intrepreneur’s mindset. Continuous improvement or incremental change contributes equally as transformational change. Let’s focus on how you can bring innovation into your everyday work, and foster a culture of creativity in your team.  Firstly, here are some steps to develop your innovative idea (big or small):

  1. Generate your idea and link to ADF Strategy. Identify the problem statement and the expected benefits of implementing a change. Identify if the idea is in the category of: (a) Just Do It (problem is known and the solution can be implemented with extant resources); (b) Continuous Improvement Initiative (an improvement activity where the solution is not known and the problem requires further analysis); or (c) Project (more complex and affects multiple units or Groups). To gain momentum and sponsorship, link the initiative to ADF strategy at the capstone or individual unit level depending on the scale of the proposal. 
  2. Seek out your champions. Engage your mentors, sponsors, and champions to help refine your concept and give your draft pitch a sense of urgency. Clarify how the future will be different from the past if the ADF embrace your idea, and how you can make this future a reality. 
  3. Choose a methodology and design your plan. There are a number of tools available for fleshing out your concept and planning your strategy. Common change management tools used in Defence are derived from process-based models like LEAN and Six Sigma (e.g DMAIC is a simple tool for Shamsa regularly used when posted to Air Force Improvement). Small projects just require sound judgement, but success in selling your idea still depends on the background knowledge of a structured approach. Larger projects may require a Capability Life Cycle approach through formal project management processes. If your idea is complex, don’t give up. Seek guidance through your chain of command or a supportive sponsor to help you through the process.
  4. Pitch your idea, you innovator! Make sure your vision and strategy is clear and refined prior to pitching to your chain of command (or relevant decision maker). Remove as many barriers as you can to make it easy for them to support your idea. With your chain of command’s approval, consider a trial of your proposed new process or source a prototype of your capability idea early in the innovation stage to demonstrate how it could benefit Defence. 

How leaders can create an innovative culture

The speed of change within the ADF is at an all-time high and will only move faster; so this is the time to inspire your team and direct their mindset to identifying opportunities for change. Change management is complicated, and cultural reform at an organisational level even more so. As a leader you can foster an innovative culture in these ways:

  1. Know your team dynamics. If you understand the unique knowledge, skills and attributes of your team members, then you can leverage them to get better outcomes. An innovative team with strong leadership can be invincible. Host a brainstorming session with your team to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and discuss how you can apply these together to the opportunities and challenges for the upcoming year. Look beyond rank or assumed skill sets. Create a sense of healthy competition for innovative ideas and ways to do business better. 
  2. Incentivise and reward innovative behaviour. Include goals relating to improvement initiatives when drafting performance reporting expectations. Highlight these in the end of year reports. Bid for extra training funding for courses that help your team develop critical thinking skills, apply change management methodology etc. And most importantly, ensure that credit for innovative ideas is attributed to the individual or team that created them, not to yourself. 
  3. Create the space your team needs to innovate. Communicate to your team the ways in which you can support them with their ideas. Follow through by continuing to assist them in developing concepts, committing resources within your remit (if applicable), and using your own networks to help reach champions. Ensure they’re not spending their own money in the development of the concept as they get more emotionally invested in the success of their idea. And most importantly, avoid crowding them through the process, just empower them to develop their own ideas and offer them the time for creative thinking. 

Good ideas are only the start point of intrapreneurship. Passion, drive, utilisation of networks and a bit of savvy business acumen are essential to ‘challenging the status quo’ and getting your innovation off the ground. The execution is what matters – and the journey can be risky and frustrating. But by focusing on ideas within your sphere of influence you can hone your intrapreneur skills to generate positive change, as well as build your reputation as a valuable forward thinker. 

As emphasised by Myles Clarke (Innovation Hub Manager, Air Warfare Centre), if leaders engage intrapreneurs in their areas of expertise, they will see world leading results in rapid time. By engaging them as a team, you will see world leading capability. Creating change in a large, capability-driven organisation like the ADF can be overwhelming and will always come with a level of risk. Embracing innovation is vital in ensuring the ADF evolves faster and smarter than its adversaries and overcomes the challenges ahead.

Further Resources:

  • The Defence Entrepreneurs Forum Australia (DEFAUS), an innovation network for junior leaders.
  • Warfare Innovation Navy (WIN) manages the Navy Innovation Framework. Their DPN intranet site contains a range of tools and contacts to assist in developing your idea. 
  • Edgy Air Force is Air Force’s bottom-up innovation program. Inspired by Plan Jericho’s disruptive innovations, Edgy AF uplifts, upskills and challenges our people to creatively design and rapidly prototype next generation and disruptive solutions to today’s problems.
  • The Australian Army Research Centre facilitates Army’s future thinking and information sharing.

Share your innovations or generate discussion on a Defence Professional Military Education (PME) Platform: 

About the authors

Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. She is a Chief of Army Scholar for 2020 and is completing a Master of International Development Practice, specialising in Gender, Peace & Security, at Monash University. Lyndsay is passionate about the ADF’s pivotal role in advocating for women’s empowerment across the globe. Twitter: @LyndsayFreeman8.

Shamsa Lea is an Air Force Logistics Officer, leadership coach and sessional academic at University of Southern Queensland. She has been engaged in female recruitment, retention and progression activities in Defence for a number of years, with a specific interest in helping ADF women achieve their leadership potential. Twitter: @ShamsaLea.