Thursday, August 11, 2016

Building an Entrepreneurial Culture to Spark Leadership and Growth

Jeremiah Gardner
Moves the Needle

It’s been said before but still rings true – the world is rapidly changing. It’s not only that technology has advanced, but with that advancement is a wave of digital disruption, rising customer expectations, and non-traditional challengers. These changes present both new challenges to face and new opportunities for growth.

Enterprises around the world are asking themselves, “How do we meet the challenges presented in this shifting landscape?” “How can we continue to create change and explore new opportunities?” “How do we use innovation as a catalyst for transformation?”

Increasingly, the ability for an enterprise to practice innovation (not just talk about it) is critical to meeting the challenges of today. 

What is “Innovation?”

The answer to these challenges seems to be captured in an increasingly-popular buzzword, “innovation.” It’s ever-present in the values of almost every enterprise across the world, gets mentioned in countless keynote addresses, and is sure to get a chip placed in any conference attendee’s game of “Business Buzzword Bingo.” 

But there is a difference between “innovation theater” and innovation as a competitive advantage. 

Innovation means creating new value. It’s not just new products, or new technologies, or new breakthroughs; but creating new value throughout the entire organization. 

This means focusing innovation efforts in HR, marketing, internal process reinvention, management, sales, procurement, and yes, even legal, are critical to an organization’s ability to remain competitive and evolve.

In our work with some of the leading organizations in the world we’ve found the foundation to establishing innovation as a practice – not just a buzzword – is fostering an environment for “Entrepreneurial Spirit.”

How Do You Awaken an Entrepreneurial Spirit?

Entrepreneurial Spirit is what empowers small, focused groups of intrapreneurs to make drastic impact by discovering new value, flipping existing markets, or even disrupting entrenched industries. 

Entrepreneurial Spirit drives these intrapreneurs to do so with only a fraction of the resources large enterprises have at their disposal (versus wasting months and millions on a new initiative only to see it flop).

The lack of Entrepreneurial Spirit allows organizations to become complacent and miss the boat entirely on the new demands and expectations of their customers. 

How do you recognize Entrepreneurial Spirit when you see it? It shows up in the behaviors of people who:

  • Prioritize learning over execution
  • Seek to understand the needs of a market deeply, not superficially
  • Assume they’re wrong and experiment at small scale prior to scaling
  • Follow the evidence, not the roadmap

Fostering the Conditions for Entrepreneurial Spirit To Thrive

The truth is, leaders and managers can’t mandate Entrepreneurial Spirit, they can only create the conditions in which it is likely to ferment, thrive, and grow. If the environment is shaped successfully, this way of working can spread throughout an organization causing ripples and waves of cultural transformation.

How do large organizations with established customer bases, thousands of employees, stockholders, and millions of dollars on the table empower innovation? 

The conditions for entrepreneurial spirit to thrive in the enterprise involve both a mindset and a skillset. 


The mindset for innovation is straightforward: balance execution and learning. Most enterprise organizations already know how to execute well. After all, it’s how they got big in the first place. But often enterprises fail when they apply their execution mindset on the learning side of the equation.

Instead, leaders must balance resource allocation and focus in both the known (execution) and the unknown (learning). This means aligning KPI’s, reward incentives, supporting functions, and organizational structures to empower intrapreneurs to activate their entrepreneurial spirit. At Moves the Needle, we like to break it down into education, enable, and empower.


An innovation mindset is critical but not enough. Without the requisite skillset, entrepreneurial spirit can easily slide back into becoming a buzzword. To practice innovation, intrapreneurs need three critical skills we’ve come to call the “3 E’s”: empathy, experimentation and evidence-based decision making.

Empathy means the ability to develop deep understanding for your customers, the problems they face, and the aspirations they hold. The farther you are away from the customer in your daily work, the farther you are away from practicing innovation. 

Enabling your employees to have direct, authentic interactions with real customers is job one in fostering the conditions for innovation to thrive. Every Lean Innovation Bootcamp we conduct intentionally starts with practicing customer empathy through interviewing real customers. This is the foundation for new ideas. Truth be told –  there is no more powerful tool in your innovation toolbox than a cup of coffee with a customer.

Experimentation means the ability to identify critical assumptions lying beneath the surface of your ideas and generate evidence to validate or invalidate your current path. Experiments are designed to rapidly find out whether the underpinning assumptions about an idea are valid or not, before investing in expensive development. 

Time and time again we see teams run experiments and produce evidence that guides their work. In the end, they’re better able to allocate resources and mitigate the risk of sinking time, energy, and money into a venture that isn’t worth pursuing. 

Evidence-based Decision Making means the ability to not only generate evidence, but to follow what the evidence is saying. The biggest competitive advantage of any organization is their ability to learn, and rapidly turn insight into action.

The goal is to build a case over time using multiple rounds of empathy and continuous rapid experiments to provide the evidence you need to prove the venture creates new value, and a return.

Three Questions

Coupling the mindset of balancing the known versus the unknown with the skillset of empathy, experimentation, and evidence-based decision making are the foundation to awakening an entrepreneurial spirit and building a successful enterprise innovation practice.

If you’re serious about going beyond the buzz, here are three questions to help you evaluate and accelerate your innovation practice: 

  1. How are you empowering your organization to practice innovation, not just talk about it?
  2. How are you fostering an environment for “Entrepreneurial Spirit” to grow and thrive?
  3. What obstacles are standing in your way to put innovation into practice and spark new leadership and growth?

Jeremiah Gardner helps organizations create new value. He is the author of the bestselling book, The Lean Brand and Principal at Moves The Needle where he empowers companies like GE, Sprint, eBay, Intuit, and Cisco practice Lean Innovation. He has been featured in several media outlets including Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Lifehacker, and The Guardian. Jeremiah reads a lot of Mark Twain, is an avid Lakers fan, and a self-professed amateur home chef. 

Jeremiah tweets @JeremiahGardner and blogs at

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