I recently had a flashback to my college days when my friend had just come back from a job interview. The interviewer had asked him, “What’s 25 times six divided by two?”

“Seventy-five,” he responded.

My friend expressed his frustration that he had gotten the answer right, but he didn’t get the job.

You see, the interviewer had asked him how he calculated that answer. My friend said he’d simply multiplied 25 by six then divided by two.

He was interviewing for a Wall Street trading position. This role demands that you think mathematically quickly on your feet. While I can’t say for sure what the interviewer wanted, I think he was looking for a sign that my friend could attack mathematical problems in ways that lead to faster solutions. For example, he wanted to see if my friend would equate “25” to a quarter coin, then six of those would be $1.50, and half of that would be 75 cents. That is the kind of quick thinking that leads to success on a trading floor.

My friend understood basic math, that was clear, but maybe he didn’t understand the game.

This is what it’s like being an intrapreneur. You have a pretty good understanding of your products, your market, and your customers. You’re smart, intrinsically motivated, and proactive. You have great ideas, but maybe you don’t understand the game.

An intrapreneur actually has two sets of customers. There’s the end customer—the one we’re usually thinking and talking about when we come up with ideas. Then there’s your employer, your boss, or your senior leadership team. They are customers, too.

When one of your internal customers rejects your idea, it’s easy to feel frustrated.

But instead of thinking, “I failed,” “None of my ideas work,” or “They’ll never listen to anything I say,” think, “Maybe I don’t understand their game.”

Sometimes there are business model conflicts you can’t yet see. Maybe you don’t understand the decision process or the emotional friction behind a decision. Maybe you don’t understand what they need.

Our Outthinker Networks research shows that successful intrapreneurs—those that aren’t frustrated and are continuously learning, growing, and coming up with some winning ideas—see the political process and organizational hurdles as part of a game.

Last week, I gave a virtual speech to Bank of America to a wonderfully diverse crowd of more than 300 intrapreneurs—each of them bursting with hundreds of their own creative and innovative ideas. I shared a difficult truth with them. The truth is most employees do not understand what types of innovation their organization needs.

Less than 55% of middle managers can name even two of their company’s strategic priorities. Even when they’re inspired to take action, employees often look in the wrong places or propose ideas of little strategic value.

Successful or “un-frustrated” intrapreneurs take the time to learn about the market forces affecting their company, understand what their organization cares about, and address unmet customer needs.

Practical steps to gain a better sense of what your organization needs

  1. Get clear on your company’s purpose. Look up your company’s mission statement. Look back into your company’s history—all the way to its founding—to find out its original purpose. Interview five colleagues to ask what they think the mission is. Interview five customers to understand what need they seek to meet when they use your product or service, and why they prefer your offer over others.
  2. Realize the long-term strategic intent. Read your company’s annual report. Listen to quarterly earnings calls to see what your CEO says the vision is. Ask what future state of the world would be achieved if your organization experiences success over the next five to ten years.
  3. Pinpoint the trends that matter. Look up conferences related to your industry and the breakout sessions listed on the agenda. Attend industry conferences or join a cross-industry peer group to find out what people in your industry or role are concerned about. Read articles about the top trends impacting your sector.
  4. Focus on near-term strategic intent. Ask functional leaders (HR, IT, operations, sales, marketing, etc.) to share their strategic plans with you. Ask your manager to see strategic plans and budget. Attend town halls to hear from leadership.
  5. Define capabilities. Determine your company’s unique capabilities that can be leveraged to make an idea work.

Conclusion

Many would-be intrapreneurs get frustrated when their ideas are not adopted. But often this is because they fail to understand what their organization and market really need. By investing the time to understand your company’s strategy and conducting first-hand customer research, you can develop a list of promising places to look for new ideas and become a source of valuable innovations. You can start to play the game.

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