Could Government use more Entrepreneurs?

When I think of entrepreneurs, I think of people who see an opportunity to take advantage of a service which isn’t currently provided, then risk their own capital to provide that service in the hopes of building a successful business or brand. There are many people out there who would argue that entrepreneurs also have a certain set of characteristics. For the sake of this post, I’m going to throw entrepreneurs into a box and paraphrase Mike Werlings 10 Traits Entrepreneurs and Einstein Share to create an image of what entrepreneurs look like.

  1. Imagination. You’ve got to imagine something to be able to create it
  2. Always questioning. Always question how to make things better
  3. Old problems, new ways of thinking. Don’t just go along with how things have been done in the past
  4. Intuition. Trust your guts
  5. Strong positive attitude. Be positive because times will get tough
  6. Naps. Naps can recharge the brain
  7. Rise above the mundane details. Pay attention to the big picture and hire others to help with everything else
  8. Willingness to try new things–and fail. Not everything will succeed but some things will likely stick
  9. Maintaining balance. Take time to play
  10. Stay on top of tech. Maximize technology to stay at the forefront of your industry

Whether deserved or not, many people would probably not relate most of these characteristics to their idea of what government workers are like. When these people think of government agencies, they imagine inefficient bureaucracies which are seemingly incapable of change and adaptation. For this, I ask you to do two things:

1) Prove them wrong – Give an example of a time when you have personally seen people who have the traits of an entrepreneur innovate government.

2) But are they right? In what ways could we use more entrepreneurship in government?

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David Dejewski

Close to home, Corey. Not only do I resemble the bald guys in your cartoon, but I always had a close relationship with entrepreneurship. I was self employed before I joined the military and made a lot of money at that time. I own my own company now. One of my main twitter handles has been @Fedtrepreneur for years. Entrepreneurial approaches usually put me at odds with status quo-ists.
Entrepreneurs are trail blazers in my mind. They go where few others dare. They see opportunity to do good and sieze it. An entrepreneur at work in a government bureaucracy is likely going to be making waves (hopefully in a good way), and pushing for improvements. They are also likely to be frustrated. The bureocracy is large and slow to change. It’s full of defense mechanisms. It takes a lot of self constraint, patience, and diplomacy to rise up the ranks in government as an entrepreneurial type.
I was in the business of Business Transformation for the last 6 years of my career. That was a good place for entrepreneurial types. Unfortunately, concentrating too much entrepreneurial energy in one place makes it easy for a bureaucracy to isolate and control. Spreading these people out makes them more insidious.
If you think you’re an entrepreneurial type, my advice is find a mentor or three. Listening to the organization, makng allies, and knowing when and how to leverage that natural energy is important for long term survival.

Corey McCarren

Do you feel like entrepreneurs are shunned in government or are welcomed, but still don”t affect the bureaucracy as quickly as entrepreneurial types would like?

David Dejewski

I’d be wrong to answer this question so generally. There are too many factors in play.

  • Current politics
  • The maturity of the leadership team
  • The maturity of the entrepreneur
  • Preconceived notions of the word “Entrepreneur.”
  • The culture an entrepreneur is operating in

Current politics is big. Does an organization need change to succeed or does it need to show that it won’t rock the boat? Is senior leadership wrestling a 900 lb gorilla & not want to be distracted by your 250 lb problem?

The maturity of the leadership team has nothing to do with age. Are they secure enough to allow entrepreneurial efforts to exist? Do they have the structure and experience to support and monitor progress. The classic monarchical leadership structure may not be prepared to entertain anything that isn’t directly from the mouth of the reining monarch. In these cases, the entrepreneur will have to build the necessary relationships and secure the blessing of the monarch before moving forward.

Mid-level managers may also feel threatened by an entrepreneur. Instead of giving support, they tag the entrepreneur as a threat & tell their colleagues that you’re off the reservation. A entrepreneur rarely succeeds if they’re not 100% with “the program.” A label of “off-the-reservation” is a death sentence.

The maturity of the entrepreneur is super important. There’s very little a true entrepreneur can do to quench the fire in their belly. We see opportunities and we are compelled to pursue them like a dog is compelled to chase a stick. It’s critical to develop patience when operating in a bureaucracy. In this regard, I believe the government is an excellent training ground. In the outside world, building a business requires tremendous patience too. An entrepreneur invests heavily in their vision – a vision most people can’t see until it has more structure. They often don’t get paid until way down the road. But, of course, the paydays can be big.

The word “Entrepreneur” is widely misunderstood. Some actually use the word as an insult. In addition to all the great qualities you list above, there are also other perceptions associated with “entrepreneur”: lone wolf, head in the clouds, risk taker, unable to finish what they started, incapable of paying attention to detail, etc. An entrepreneur type has to pay close attention to their own strengths and weaknesses. The Entrepreneur must be prepared to augment their skill set with the skill sets of capable people who are strong in ways the entrepreneur is not. Team building is essential.

Culture is pretty important. An entrepreneur will generally have an easier time in a culture where experimentation and new energy is welcome. A crusty old environment where the mantra is “We do it that way because we always have done it that way.” is likely going to suppress the entrepreneur.

Being an entrepreneur in government has distinct advantages and disadvantages. In my experience, the government doesn’t attract many of this personality type. Many of the ones it does attract either get broken or leave in frustration before they advance very far in their career. Bureaucracies are really challenging places for entrepreneurs. But they can also be serious testing / training grounds. The ones that adapt and stick it out can make a really big difference. In my opinion, the entrepreneurial spirit is a fundamental force of change.

Corey McCarren

Good point that it’s hard and largely unfair to fit the answer the the question in one little box. With something as expansive as government, it’s impossible to generalize and be totally accurate. On my free time I plan on looking into scholarly works about the attributes of entrepreneurs to see if there really are traits that are overarching themes of entrepreneurship.