Intrapreneurship in an Asian context. Possibility or Myth?

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Written by Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)
Dec 28, 2006


Intrapreneurship or Internal Entrepreneurship is fast becoming a big buzz word as companies start to embrace design, innovation and creativity as a strategic competitive advantage. Using the viewpoint that “innovation begins with everybody” as a credo to beat the competition, companies like IBM, 3M and P&G all have their fair share of Internal Entrepreneurs or Mavericks creating value for their companies.

What about Intrapreneurship in Asia? Where Asian companies are notoriously very regimental and hierarchical and where decisions are often made by one person? I like to share my strategies and the path I took as a somewhat successful Intrapreneurer in a very Asian company.

This article was really a result of a spirited discussion at the SGEntrepreneurs Blog on Intrapreneurship when many visitors commented and believe it is not possible especially in an Asian context. I disagree. Actually many of the strategies our fellow western Mavericks use, do apply here in Asia. However there are a few strategies that are unique to Asia as well.

The way Asian companies are run

This is one of the main differences between Asian (not all mind you) and our western counterparts. As most Asian companies are family owned, decisions are made top down, and often by the Chairman/CEO a.k.a. as the Patriarch. As a result it is quite common that no decisions are made or no actions taken until the top man or woman says so. Furthermore such “decision making paralysis” makes getting anything done in an Asian company very frustrating.

Understanding this is the first path to success in Intrapreneurship in an Asian company. As discussed in my article “Tips of being creative military style” this sets up your environment and frame work for which you can start to make things happen.

Reporting structures in Asian companies

This is one of the big reasons why Intrapreneurship in an Asian company is so difficult. Simply because nothing is done unless you have the explicit approval or agreement of the person above you.

Furthermore, Asian managers have a tendency of not letting go of responsibility or empowering subordinates. Simply, the sense of responsibility and the fear failure and losing face, make many Asian managers “control freaks”, or “lone rangers” working on project alone.

First you need to determine how much lea way you have in your organization structure to initiate programs or advice, and if its welcomed in the first place. If you can maneuver yourself into a position where your recommendations are heeded then Intrapreneurship initiatives can be easier.


So how do you get into a position where your advice is sought after or recommendations heeded?

You do it by establishing trust.

Asian companies, in particular, take a long time to establish trust in an employee. In fact the more highly qualified or ranked you are the harder it takes to establish trust. The main reason is new employees have a tendency to rock the boat to justify their employment, further fueling distrust. Or the sheer enthusiasm of a new employee has the bad habit to rub existing employees the wrong way.

The best way is to be patient and take things slow. Work hard, do good work, ensure your responsibilities are taken care of, and finally deliver work on time and as you have promised. Missing the scheduled dateline or milestone is often seen in Asian companies are unreliable or untrustworthy.

It took me the greater part of 2 years to establish the trust needed by the management to allow me to do what I do. During those 2 years I worked 12 to 15 hour days. I was the first one in at work and the last to leave; so much so the HR department thought I never went home! But most important of all I focused on getting my job done well above my management’s expectations, and finally I never ever missed a dateline.

Find an Internal Advocate

However even then all the trust in the world will come to naught if you do not have an internal advocate.

An internal advocate is someone in the higher management that supports your work as well as can be someone that can help facilitate getting the decisions made on your projects. Remember the hierarchy? Having a well placed, very high up, Internal Advocate with in the management structure can help you get things done at an amazing speed!

In my previous post I talk about working with internal advocates to speed up negotiation. This post can give you more information getting help from these wonderful “Angels”. Think “Angel Investor” and you have your equivalent in the corporate world.

Befriend Lateral Advocates

An interesting difference between entrepreneurs in an organization versus entrepreneurs on their own is the former cannot work alone. Many Intrapreneurship projects fail because of the resistance of the other departments involved. For example, Finance, Sales and Logistics managers all have the power to kill a project.

Thus you need Lateral Advocates as well. These managers of different departments can make or break an Intrapreneurship project. The more of them you have supporting you, the easier it is for you to get your Intrapreneurship project up and running.

Know your product or business well

Now we start to get into the nitty gritty of things. To really make an Intrapreneurship project successful, it is almost imperative that you know your business or product well. Your initiative has to make sense, your solution obvious, and you need to know how to go about doing it. Otherwise you risk your effort becoming just a whining complaint to your manager!

Therefore you need to know how it is conceptualized, how it is made, how it is distributed, how it is sold, or how it is used etc.

Be in a position for budget and vendor management

After that you need to move into a position where you can dictate and manage your budgets and the use of vendors. This will be the bread and butter of your Intrapreneurship project as you are not going to get anything going if you don’t have access to any of this.

Companies run on budgets. If you are able to move into a position to control how your budgets are allocated or obtained, you can help ensure the success of your project, as money is the project’s life blood.

Furthermore the ability to manage the vendor helps you ensure the success of your project. The worst would be to start something and not have the ability to finish it.

Know the internal system

Some of the biggest complaints I have heard from fellow employees are “this company has a lousy system” or worst still “this company has no system”. Every company has a system, or a set of rules that people play with. If you don’t know it, then you better not play!

As an Intrapreneur you will need to know the system, and know it well. That’s the only way you can make it happen, especially in an Asian context.

Do you have qualities of a Maverick?

Basically all rules of an entrepreneur’s mindset will apply; the willpower required, stubbornness and patience to succeed are all minimum ingredients. Frustration of the lack of control can be very high. Thus the mental preparation is almost equal to that of an Entrepreneur going out on his/her own. In fact it could be tougher as you would likely still have your day to day job responsibilities to take care of during this time.

For more information on the qualities and characters of Mavericks do take a look at this great write up here.


A lot of strategies and ideas mentioned here means you would need to be in at least middle to upper level management position. If feel you are not quite there yet, you will need to get there at least by working and acquiring the skills required to be in that position.

Also I would not suggest joining a company to be an Intrapreneur its just not logical. This is because the level of conforming to the system you need to do is very high, and might be too much for a purist entrepreneur. However being an Intrapreneur is a good strategy to further or improve your career once you have been in an organization for a few years.

Oh, and finally, I almost forgot if you are interested to take a look at the prototype of the fruits of my labor it can be found as a Product Honoree at CES 2007 in Viva Las Vegas during Jan 08-11!
Note: Slow loading times after the two jump.

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C. E. Reid
Apr 25, 07 – 8:29 pm


I found this article on Asian Intrapreneurship to be very informative and provocative. I provided a snippet of this article on my site, with a couple of link backs to your site and this article. I’ll also add you to my [clever people] resource list on another site I have called

Design Translator
Apr 25, 07 – 9:06 pm

Hi C.E. Reid,

Thanks for your links and please keep in touch!

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