Liberating Leadership, Innovation and Creativity

How the Australian Government is Promoting Intrapreneurialism


Dr Sarah Pearson

Over the past 40 years, capitalist governments worldwide have acquired an increased interest in entrepreneurship and small business development as a potential solution to economic growth and rising unemployment. It’s helped spawn a new field of academic study and research, and the trend was boosted by technology entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Gates of Microsoft, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google. Technology parks can be found scattered around the world, and we are constantly being informed of the latest and greatest startups, non-profits, and special interest charity groups.

The entrepreneurial mindset is alive and well around the world, and the government typically has a key impact on not only how new businesses are created, but also on the nature and ability of firms to grow. While we do require some of the movers and shakers to disrupt current business models to propel innovation and growth via business creation, some of the most important social entrepreneurs, or intrapreneurs lie within our current institutions.

Dr. Sarah Pearson is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) first Chief Innovation Officer and is working to embed innovation across all of DFAT’s work. She offered some of the ways DFAT, and the Australian government, is promoting intrapreneurialism and creative responsibility.

Intrapreneurialism within DFAT

Emerging science, tech, and innovation poses an opportunity for all DFAT activity—from development programs to foreign affairs and trade. In order to drive change, Dr. Pearson urges that “you need to give people a reason to change. Why should it matter to them? You’ve got to show them success stories to demonstrate what it could achieve, to show them the potential.”

The InnovationXchange (iXc) was set up within DFAT in 2015 as an experiment to showcase how innovation can be used in Australia’s aid program. Pearson descried how the staff within iXc became intrapreneurs within DFAT, experimenting with innovative approaches—such as running global challenges to source the world’s greatest ideas to tackle our toughest development problems. Some of the challenges included LAUNCH Food, a global call for ideas that could improve nutrition in the Pacific, a region that holds 9 out of the world’s top 10 most obese countries; the MIT Solve Challenge, which sourced solutions to prepare disadvantaged youth for the workforce of the future; and the Google Impact Challenge, through which the DFAT supported 4 winners who were using a technological solution to fight poverty in our region.

IXc staff are also finding creative ways to support entrepreneurs across the Indo-Pacific, and they’re gaining valuable insights into how innovation and the start-up scene works in the process. The flagship entrepreneurship program, Scaling Frontier Innovation, is an initiative to strengthen and support the ecosystem for innovators and entrepreneurs in our region.

In 2018, iXc started to apply what they’d learned toward supporting all of DFAT to improve their work in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, and producing better value-for-money for the department. Pearson explained they’re transferring over some of the early stage experiments to other sections of DFAT and helping others to take innovative approaches: “We were getting feedback that staff wanted to learn how to adopt innovative approaches to their work, using frameworks such as human centered design. In an ideal world, all DFAT staff would consider themselves intrapreneurs, and that’s certainly something we’re striving for.”

Another way the DFAT is promoting intrapreneurship is by leveraging private sector partnerships with companies like Google and Atlassian to build its skills and capability, as well as increase access to the latest technology. “Working with Atlassian has given us exposure to their ways of working—agile and creative—as well as some of the products and tools, including collaboration platforms and team management tools,” explains Pearson. “The technical expertise of both Google and Atlassian was hugely impactful in supporting the grantees funded from the challenges with technical support to improve and scale ideas to reach more beneficiaries,” she said.

It’s not just the DFAT that’s incorporating and promoting intrapreneurship. There is a lot of work being done to support intrapreneurship across the government. According to Pearson, there are over 20 groups in the Public Sector Practitioners Network, which is made up innovation labs across the Commonwealth.

“Of course, that’s not to say you need to be part of an innovation lab to consider yourself an intrapreneur, but the people in these labs are the champions for their departments,” says Pearson. The lab support staff create innovative ways of working—like design thinking and agile team management approaches and tools.

What makes an intrapeneur different from a “good” employee?

Intrapreneurs could be the key to future-driven successes for a number of organizations. Not everyone is an intrapreneur, and some employees possess a higher degree of potential than others. According the Pearson, identifying your intrapreneurs is pretty easy: “[They] aren’t content with the status quo. They want to be sure they’re being as effective and impactful as possible. They think outside the box and focus on outcomes. They recognize they don’t always have all the answers, and are prepared to look externally for ideas to improve.

They are constantly driven by being better and reaching their full potential. Intrapreneurs are experimental—prepared to trial new ideas, but always able to pivot or stop if evidence shows it’s not working. They take calculated, smart risks. Finally, they are well connected both inside and outside the organization, allowing them to exchange ideas with others, to both learn and share their knowledge.”