I believe that anyone in any workplace who is seeking to be opportunistic and resourceful; who is adding value and solving problems; and who is constantly looking for ways of creating opportunities – is being entrepreneurial.

Such people work in large and small businesses, schools and universities, government agencies, Not For Profit Companies and charitable organisations. In short, entrepreneurs exist everywhere. And it is a skill we can all demonstrate.

I love this  quote from Queen Rania of Jordan, “The skills of an entrepreneur are the skills of the 21st Century worker.”

Anytime someone experiences a disappointing result or outcome and asks themselves “Where is the opportunity in this?” they are being entrepreneurial. Or when they actively seek to depart from the status quo in order to provide a better customer experience, or serve the community more effectively, they are being entrepreneurial.

Entrepreneurialism is a mindset

Entrepreneurialism is a mental attitude of resilience that sees the potential and possibility in a situation that others may think of as failure – whether they are a business owner, a teacher, a scientist or a government employee.

The famous story of 3M’s post-it notes is an example of this. A research scientist was disappointed with the adhesive performance of a particular adhesive the lab was working on. It would peel off too easily. Had a less entrepreneurial thinker been at the helm of that lab we might never have had post-it notes.

To be entrepreneurial means to be consciously focused on rewards rather than the fear of loss. As a motivator fear is much more powerful than reward and it drives our behaviour. This is why many people don’t take risks. They are too afraid of what they might lose which eclipses the joy and benefit of what they might gain.  We have to change the mindset of  “If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it” …. to… “fix things by making them better BEFORE they get broken.”

Create an entrepreneurial workplace

When it comes to creating an entrepreneurial workplace where opportunities are identified and exploited, the research shows that the primary factor is that leaders must act as role models.[1] Other factors are the level of empowerment of team members and the level of environmental support through resources.

Overcome the greatest barrier to entrepreneurialism

Fear of risk is the greatest barrier to entrepreneurialism. Risk is a term that strikes fear in the hearts of many leaders – especially those who consider themselves to work in severely risk averse contexts. However taking a risk is NOT about being irresponsible, naive or reckless. Calculated risks still require due diligence.

If someone thinks it is risky to innovate. Think of the alternative. Today the riskiest course of action is to NOT innovate. That is a direct route into the innovation gap. Irrelevancy, bankruptcy and oblivion await there.

Michael Barber in his book How To Run A Government So That Citizens Benefit And Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy (2015)[2]  points out that very often a bureaucracy’s reaction to risk makes them even more vulnerable.

“The instinctive reaction of a bureaucracy to a problem or a crisis is to become more cautious, more risk averse. Ironically, in an era when change is as rapid as it has become n the early twenty-first century, this reaction ultimately adds to the risk of failure rather than reduces it.” (P.191)

Clearly we need a new way of thinking about risk. In a risk averse culture such as in the public sector there are some things that leaders can do to mitigate risk while still innovating. They can:

  1. Focus the innovation efforts and be very strategic about  which ideas are selected, groomed and implemented
  2. Use evolutionary rather than revolutionary innovation. In other words move forward in iterative cycles of plan, act, observe, reflect rather than taking a huge leap of faith into unchartered waters.
  3. Run pilots, experiment, figure out what works and what doesn’t and then scale up.

Christian Bason in Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a better society[3]  has some good advice about risk and failure for leaders who want to innovate. He says “Fail early to succeed sooner.” So figure out quickly (preferably through a pilot) what does or doesn’t work and move on. Adapt and iterate, or abandon and cut loses.

The irony is that over-engineering processes in an attempt to reduce failure and thereby conserve resources can have the opposite effect. Rather, it is the giving of permission to fail in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment that can end up saving time and resources.

Reframing risk in this way can help unleash the entrepreneurial spirit in you and your team.

[1] Renko, M., El Tarabishy, A., Carsrud, A. L., & Brännback, M. (2013). Understanding and Measuring Entrepreneurial Leadership Style. Journal of Small Business Management, 53(1), 54-74. doi:10.1111/jsbm.12086

[2] Barber, M. (2015). How to Run A Government So That Citizens Benefit And Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. UK.. Penguin Random House.

[3] Bason, C. (2010). Leading public sector innovation: Co-creating for a better society. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.


We'll email you two chapters of this latest release from Dr Irena Yashin-Shaw, "Intrapreneur - How leaders ignite innovation, break bureaucracy and catalyse change".

You have Successfully Subscribed!