Turn Your Meetings Into Intrapreneur Workshops
In The Pentagon’s Virtuous Insurgency, the authors state that “the military neither recognizes nor leverages junior enlisted talent.” Adding to the problem, the military often reserves the right to craft ideas in the more senior ranks, comprised of people who are creations of the not-so-crafty establishment they grew up in. A War on the Rocks article expanded upon this idea by using a war-time example of junior leader innovation and forward-thinking, but no leader should have to wait for the battlefield, or the boardroom for that matter, for their creative ideas to be heard. Disruptive thinking emboldens creative friction and intrapreneurship, so the Army must leverage the diversity within our organizations. To build your own virtuous insurgency, I offer several thoughts and suggestions that can help you turn your meetings into vehicles of innovation.
Are Your Meetings Driving Information or Innovation?
Meetings are often a time when people come together to cross-pollinate ideas in search of a solution to a challenge or problem their team is facing. Many times, however, we find that meetings are a time suck that do not inspire creativity, much less true innovation. Military meetings, in particular, can become more about color-coded slides and stats than predicting and tackling the projected problem on the horizon. So the question becomes, how can we ensure our meetings are less about information and more about innovation. How can we make them more cognitively and creatively stimulating? How can the Army generate intrapreneurs?
The best companies are marked by innovative get-togethers, bringing in the right mix of people and ideas to create an adaptive environment. Successful organizations have modified their strategies to foster, collect, and action new ideas by using techniques like design thinking to connect seemingly disparate ideas. Practices like this are not verboten in the Army, although they are often not employed. In fact, my team and I successfully incorporated elements of design thinking into our meeting format several years ago – leveraging the diverse talent on the team and developing innovative solutions to unique problems we faced.
Back when I was a company commander, we introduced a new monthly meeting – the intrapreneurshop (combining the words intrapreneurship and workshop). It was built upon a pilot we tried when I was a Tactical Officer at West Point. These collaborative sessions were aimed at generating innovation from the ground up. Each meeting has a “mini-conference” feel more and an agenda-based status update. We started intrapreneurshops geared toward proactivity, creative dialogue, and new ideas.
We sought to mass creative input and spark mental agility across the organization, but especially in our junior and mid-level leaders (mainly our NCOs), so a lot of the traditional formality that characterizes the military’s hierarchical structure was put aside. Our monthly collaborations were meant to focus on generating solutions to all of our wicked problems. There was no specified formula with respect to the meeting, but there are a few process-oriented elements that we found the team must focus on for success.
The Essentials of the Intrapreneurshop
First, the people you bring to the meeting matter. Diversity of thought and the avoidance of groupthink was important to us, so the members of the meetings consistently rotated among our different sections. Constant rotation of the attendees between groups ensures diversity of backgrounds, skill sets, experiences, and perceptions of the problem we were tackling. There were always more junior soldiers than senior leaders. The only consistent attendees were my First Sergeant and me. The other leaders in the room were encouraged to participate, but the primary focus was on the rest of the group.
Second, the actual number of attendees needs to be small, as too many people can lead to social loafing and decreases in productivity. Group dynamics and social psychology tell us that groups larger than seven to nine members add challenges and distractions rather than effectiveness. More anecdotally, Jeff Bezos came up with the Two Pizza Rule: never have a meeting where two pizzas cannot feed the entire group. To fight against group think we never included our whole organization, nor did we include everyone from a subsection. This further promoted the teamwork and openness of the meeting, seeking maximum diversity of thought.
Third, location is important. One requirement was that our meetings were off-site (sometimes off post), to spark both creativity and maintain neutrality. We suggest that it cannot be in someone’s office or even in your larger workplace. Many of our workplaces, like break areas, classrooms, TOCs, and conference rooms double as an office or meeting place that embody an official capacity. This more often creates a dynamic that is less productive simply because of the subconscious task-orientation toward work. Even how the room is setup is just as important as the setting itself; who sits where, freedom of movement, and physical arrangement to maximize the exchange of ideas all matters. These meetings cannot be seen as work and should even avoid seeming like “business as usual”.
Lastly, the structure of the meeting ties everything together. This is arguably the most important component. We decided to hold out intrapreneurshops once a month. We included food and got off-base. We had a strict time boundary of 60 minutes since adult learning theory holds as our brain’s upper limit for productivity on a given task. There was no specific agenda or headline from where to start – we just opened the floor to discussion. I took on the role of discussion facilitator and recorder. As a facilitator, I only prompted further discussion through open-ended questions, reframes, and appreciative inquiries – tenets of executive coaching. I tried my best to unpack their ideas and remain neutral. Most critical, we routinely followed through on the meeting notes. After creating ideas and solutions one must act; it is Sisyphean to constantly go through the arduous task of pointing out problems and identifying solutions to those problems without acting on our solutions.
What Right Can Look Like
One of our first synchs crowd-sourced our organizational vision, mission statement, outcomes, and even my company’s leader philosophy, gaining buy-in much sooner as I came to lead the organization. When we were losing multiple leaders from one section, an Intrapreneurshop determined which junior soldiers would take over key jobs, how they would restructure personnel and shift work within other internal teams to accommodate our mission, and forecasted the training required to make it all come together. We once had to run 24-hour operations stateside for an entire month; it was an Intrapreneurshop that determined the outputs, goals, daily checks, and plan of action for how we would do it.
I could mention many other unique solutions, but the bottom line is every single one of these solutions came from a group of junior soldiers – using a meeting format that leveraged their unique insights and ideas.
It should be noted that it took us many months to cultivate the culture for our Intrapreneurshops to take hold. There is no secret sauce, but the best advice I could pass along would be to be present-minded and future-focused, both at the micro-level during creative problem solving and at the macro level while crafting your innovation. In other words, trust the process and remain flexible as you build your intrapreneurial capacity.
Remember, creating a culture of innovation at the lowest level requires that you consider who is included in the meetings you hold, how many attend, where the gathering it is held, and how it is conducted. This article focused more on the details of the how and the why behind these gatherings as opposed to focusing on what our specific outcomes were. We must build both people and institutions for innovation to occur. Complex problems are best solved in collaborative, disruptive, and adult-learning-oriented sessions. They can seem almost “leaderless” in many circles (especially the military) because the ranking member may not command the meeting; the person with the best idea drives the direction. Authority alone won’t always drive solutions. Intrapreneurshops are an example of what it can look like when you loosen the reigns and focus more on process than procedure and synergy rather than rigidity.
Chaveso Cook, Ph.D., is an active-duty Army Lieutenant Colonel who focuses on strategic communications and leader development. He currently works in the Immediate Office of the Secretary of the Army and is a Senior Fellow for the Center for Junior Officers. He is also the Executive Director and co-founder of the non-profit MilitaryMentors.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.