L&D Best Practices

Intrapreneurship for Learning and Development: a practical approach

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Intrapreneurship for Learning and Development

Collaborating with learning and development (L&D) leaders, I hear more than ever, the desire for the courage and ability to not be constrained by rules; to do what is right, and not what is expected. As a former digital product manager, I realized that the approaches startups use, such as determining market segments, problems, functional and emotional needs, and iterative collaboration, can have a powerful impact for L&D!

This article shares how you can harness the techniques of entrepreneurs to discover business needs, make a strong case for learning, and implement side-by-side with your business partners within your organization. Let’s call this Intrapreneurship for Learning and Development.

Today, we, as L&D leaders, already think about what audiences we can help, what they need to learn, and how we can deliver it. Unfortunately, we also struggle with how to get business partner interest without a trigger such as new leadership, a merger, or an external business disruption. Have you ever thought, “I have great solutions but why do I do not have any buyers?”

If so, you are not alone! The problem is that human nature says that we focus the solution around ourselves. This thinking assumes why learners need to learn, what they need to learn,  as well as how they need to learn. In these cases, we are like hammers and view the world as nails.

Instead, forget about us. Intrapreneurs start with the buyer and also the buyer’s buyer. In this case, the buyer is our business partner and their buyer is their department. What does the world look like from their point of view? What are their goals? What are their problems? What are the emotional and practical costs of these problems? How are they solving those problems today? What can we do that meets these needs? What defines success for them ranging from leading to lagging indicators? What assumptions do we have about possible solutions? What can we create for free to test the most risky assumptions? Who do we need to make this idea become real?

Step 1: Define the buyer, the buyer’s buyer and their needs

If you look across your company, you can group departments by function, geography but also by need. This need can be a type of business problem such as high growth, low growth, generational change etc.

By talking with department heads and staff, you can ask open ended questions like, “What is working for you? What would you change if you had a magic wand? Why would you change that? What would look different a year from now? Why?” Asking these consistently across several people will render a deep understanding of people’s’ needs on both practical and emotional levels.

If you can do this across several departments, you may find that problems create non-obvious cohorts which means more people can be served by a single solution. Whoever has the most pain makes for a possible pilot partner. And, as much as possible, avoid jumping to solutions or problem solving at this stage.

Step 2: Define the gap and the costs

For any business problem they mention, how are they meeting those needs today? Are they doing nothing? Are they using homegrown solutions in combination with services you are delivering?

Now is the time to quantify the gaps in terms of time, money, and frustration. In a table, list the problems they have, the solutions in place, and the time, money, and emotional costs of each.

For example, take a bank that has 100 front line managers. The managers are not allowed to make certain financial decisions when the budget is above $1M but below $5M. Cost of capital is 3%. It takes 4 extra days to get a director to weigh in. 10 of those 100 have been identified as high potential (HiPo).


You likely have the KPI already in place based on corporate strategy and how they are defining financial and operational success including leading and lagging KPI. Group the KPI into internal KPI such as satisfaction, competency alignment, time to leadership, recruiting, retention and external such as increased sales in a specific area, net promoter score, or revenue by geography. This will avoid the ROI trap as you can prove that the result was worth the cost. Ideally, you can develop the KPI with a finance colleague.

Step 3: Brainstorm the solution based on the needs and KPIs with your buyers

At this point, you have a deep, first hand understanding of the needs, costs, and how success will be measured. You also an open dialogue with your business partner and their learners. Host a brainstorm session with the business partner, some learners, and the finance lead. Start by defining the problem and ensure you all have a shared mental model. While we believe a learning culture is at the root of company success, they may have other views. The combination of learning and what they hold dear is powerful. Brainstorm solutions that include learning and other methods. Acknowledge that you are making assumptions and document them as such. A powerful distinction is to say “I know” based on research and “I believe” based on gut. After two hours, you should have a list of ideas to try based on the top needs.

Step 4: Iterate; The faster you try ideas, the sooner you find ones that work

Agree on which ideas have the most potential and then think about which assumptions you need to test first. For example, in the bank manager example, if the biggest assumption is that the organization knows what leadership means, then rolling out a program to 90 people introduces too much risk without knowing more deeply what to include. One solution can be to spend 30 days working with 5 random people of those 90 to understand what leadership skills means to them vs how the organization has defined it. This takes away the risk by using people instead of software. It is free and will deliver measurable benefits. Call this a pilot, or an experiment, or a Beta test to get people in the mindset that some parts will work and some will not but we will learn a great deal. Failing is not failure. Learning from experiments is always a win as you can stack each learning to compound the impact of the subsequent iteration. You will notice that we are not talking tools yet as we may not know if we need a hammer at all.

Putting the business needs first and how learning supports them allows you to lead the discussion as most bus leaders are good operational thinkers but forget how learning can be the multiplying effect! The tail wags the dog! This will keep the entire team focused on the right outcomes and since people support what they create, create allies to speed implementation.

The good news is that there are business leaders in your company who think the same way and are willing to be your test subjects so that they can see results earlier. You may find other intrapreneurs in your company who, in turn, could be your best promoters! You can likely already think about which departments are most in need of help today.

The benefits to this approach include avoiding getting lost in tool selection and feature comparison by focusing on the business needs and outcomes to make a strong and simple business case. You can also solve problems that span beyond L&D itself as you become the cross functional architect without having to supply 100% of the solution. And, intrapreneurship is a strong signal of a learning organization so you are on the right path!

The time is now and the opportunity is yours!

This combination of focusing on the buyer’s needs, creating a strong business case for learning as part of the solution, and iterating across functions is courage in action. It is what makes entrepreneurs successful and what can make you known as the expert in Intrapreneurship for Learning and Development. It is fun and energizing for teams.