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Enterprise Entrepreneurship: How To Unleash Great Ideas in a Big Company Enterprise Entrepreneurship: How To Unleash Great Ideas in a Big Company
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Enterprise Entrepreneurship: How to Unleash Great Ideas in a Big Company

Sarah Schott •  October 17, 2014 | Business and Careers

If someone had asked me 10 years ago to define an entrepreneur, I probably would have described a person alone in a garage, inventing the next thing that will revolutionize the world. Or a business owner working seven days a week to make his or her dream a reality. Today, I have a broader view.

An entrepreneur is defined by how he or she thinks. And you don’t have to own your own business to think like one. I believe organizations of all sizes can foster a culture of entrepreneurship if they are willing to loosen the chains and allow the people who work for the organization to challenge the way things have always been done. Employees who are empowered to make decisions and drive change will be more engaged and productive. That’s the kind of culture we’re working to create at Northwestern Mutual.

So how do you build a culture of entrepreneurship?

Three things:

1. Support from the top. Any plan to move toward a more entrepreneurial culture will not be successful without executive sponsorship. From the top down, the messaging must be consistent about the value to the marketplace, to clients and to the internal audiences that have to embrace and drive the change. When there is a clear directive from leadership, the people on the front lines will be more likely to engage.

2. A tested approach. It’s not enough to call a meeting and say, “Let’s think differently.” There are widely used methods of continuous improvement, such as Design Thinking, Lean Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints, that can be helpful in facilitating change.

3. A culture of trust. Organizations have to give employees the freedom to experiment, take risks and make decisions. And for people to take on the added responsibility of acting like owners, they need to know that they have space to experiment, and that their bosses understand some experiments will fail. Employees who trust that experiments will be seen as learning opportunities will be more likely to try new things.

Here’s one example of how this is playing out at Northwestern Mutual. One of our goals is to eliminate unnecessary work, so we’ve been pulling together groups of employees to take a critical look at how we work. In one case, we were able to remove nearly two-thirds of the steps from a process. In another, we cut a nine-step process to one. And along the way, we are changing how people feel about their role in the company. After participating in one of the sessions, one of our employees took it upon herself to independently gather a team to review and recommend improvements for six other processes. She knew she had the power to make an impact, and she acted on it. That’s entrepreneurial thinking, and when it takes hold, everyone wins. Employees feel like valued contributors, and our business is better for it.

Don’t limit yourself by thinking that you have to own a business or dream up a big idea to be an entrepreneur. When big organizations empower individuals to think differently and drive change from the bottom up, we’re all entrepreneurs.

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