September 8, 2023

Lessons from Greek Gods: Janus was an Intrapreneur

What is an Intrapreneur, and how different is it from an entrepreneur? Let me answer that the fun way - with an analogy.

Imagine Janus, the Greek god often depicted with one face looking outward, towards the future and its potential, and the other face looking inward, towards the past and the present.

Janus is the god associated with gates, choices, duality, passages, trading, and time. In fact, the month of January is named after him. In ancient beliefs, Janus possessed the unique ability to skillfully bridge the core characteristics, actions, achievements, and even the failings of the past and present with the potential, opportunities, challenges, and needs of the future.

Intrapraneurs… Who Are They?

Intrapreneurs carry out much of the same work, although they likely don’t think of themselves as gods. Intrapreneurs create new businesses, or new ways of doing business, within established organizations to catalyze growth.

The phrase "operating within established organizations" is a blessing and a curse to most innovative leaders and intrapreneurs.

On one hand, these organizations offer valuable resources such as funding, talent, operational processes, facilities, and relevant knowledge (at least in theory). 

On the other hand, these resources are embedded into prior commitments, entrenched habits, and personal preferences that shape mindsets and cultures. These can often reject, slow down, or water down new ideas and initiatives to make sure they “fit” within the existing norms.

This is where the benefits of the Janus effect kick in. Janus possesses the ability to recognize the merits and truths on both sides of the equation. Moreover, he sees ways to reconcile and blend them into a new, harmonious state.

Intrapreneur in action

Take my friend and fellow intrapreneur, Dick K., as an example. He was brought into a failing manufacturing company as the new CEO. The mandate was given to him to turn the company around by going back and reclaiming old customers who had left. This presumably happened because they got wind of the fact that Dick’s company was being sold off by its huge global parent corporation. 

Dick looked outward and to the future by engaging with customers and examining their technology roadmaps. What he uncovered was that his company's manufacturing output, comprising 85% of its products, was no longer necessary. In fact, they could procure these items more affordably overseas. During this quest, he also learned that they were in need of a manufacturer that could produce a special kind of silicon chip, and they were specifically seeking an American partner. 

Dick looked inward and saw his company had a history of producing that type of chip, albeit in small quantities, equating to less than 15% of the company’s capacity and revenue. 

A-ha, there it was!  

If this past and present silicon chip capability could be grown quickly, the company could be back in business. 

However, Dick’s inward looking did not stop at technology. He looked at the culture, capabilities, motivations, and mindsets of his senior team and of all the workers. They lived in great fear of the company going out of business. Consequently, they had developed self-preservation habits, such as displacing each other from roles based on seniority, in their efforts to secure more stable positions. 

Looking more deeply, Dick found a group of “scrappy individuals” willing to fight, learn, and collaborate to not only stay in business, but to innovate and thrive. Their shared icon was a giant, stuffed “Junkyard Dog” that Dick had won at a carnival. He rallied them around the idea that all of them, including himself, were “Junkyard Dogs” willing to fight to win. Dick convinced them that the future depended on what was already inside of the company and inside each of them. One concrete sign of this connection was the awarding of the “Junkyard Dog” to the person who came up with the most innovative, actionable idea each week. 

In less than a year, Dick’s manufacturing company turned entirely around, and went from barely surviving to positively thriving, all thanks to Dick’s outward and inward observations and actions.  

How can we develop these Janus-like intrapreneurial skills in our companies and in ourselves?  

  1. Develop wide, deep networks and authentic relationships inside and outside our companies. This especially involves getting to know customers and employees on a one-on-one, personal trust basis.
  2. Know your external unmet market needs. Know your internal unmet market needs. Commit to developing a solution, including its implementation, that meets both needs at the same time.
  3. Know the culture and what aspects of it to accent and use as part of the solution, and what parts to play down or extinguish.  Focus on what’s right and can be even better vs. what’s wrong and needs to be stopped. Find your “Junkyard Dog.”

Next time you are facing a “tough-nut” challenge that has both external and internal tensions, be sure to imitate our old friend, Janus. Look both ways for new beginnings, and see the positive work that unfolds.