Managing change in big corporates means you have to be ambidextrous. With disruptive curiosity in one hand and humble empathy in the other, David Gram, Venture Partner at LEGO and Co-Founder of Diplomatic Rebels, teaches us how to unite these attributes which seemingly sit at odds with one another.

Corporates are often too big and cumbersome to respond to change.

In fact, the bigger companies grow, the greater the focus becomes on having lean processes and methods in place to run its current business – a set of processes and structures which are necessary because in order to work the existing business needs to be exceptionally organized, structured, and streamlined.

“But this also restricts the margin for error, for misstepping, or doing things in different ways; this almost gets eliminated in its entirety with the increasing size of a company” begins David.

To manage and handle this as an intrapreneur, you need to become a diplomatic rebel.”

On one hand, this means being curious about asking questions. Why are we doing things like this? Or, could there be other, better, ways?

The rebel sees changes which are going on in the world and with consumers, she pokes the bear, and she shouts ‘wait a minute, the world is changing and we need to adapt!’

One the other, intrapreneurs need diplomacy skills.

This means being able to onboard people into this new reality, take them by the hand, and guide them across the bridge towards an ever-evolving world:

“Today, these shouldn’t be mutually exclusive traits: instead, intrapreneurs need to balance the curiosity and resilience of the rebel, whilst channeling the humble, listening diplomat. The diplomat is able to tell the stories that help people move along, and navigate innovations through corporations with all their politics. This balancing act is something of a dilemma.”

This is because people are either strong at one or the other – rarely both.

Will curiosity kill the corporate?

Becoming the diplomatic rebel is the biggest challenge that intrapreneurs face; where cultivating diplomatic rebels is the biggest challenge for corporates.

“Building a culture for this kind of persona means corporates need to act more like nimble start-ups in the way that they lead, organize, and measure. That typically means more autonomy down into the organization, to create a sense of ownership among teams, and an ability to explore and experiment.”

Any organization that wants to adapt, will have to adopt this core capability – and it doesn’t come as a guarantee. Corporates are like people in that they become increasingly more resistant to change with maturity.

“It’s also the case for adults and children: when we’re young, we’re explorers. As we grow up, we become accustomed to our environment and stuck in our ways. The key challenge in breaking out of this trap is addressing the fear of failure: we’re scared of misstepping, of looking foolish, of not nailing it the first time. This goes for corporations, just as it goes for the individuals who make them.”

And failure to do so will kill the intrapreneurial culture – which celebrates the process behind nailing in the 9th time.

So how do we find that ability to experiment and explore? How do we create the space to act on curiosity, and behave like a scientist? It means constantly challenging the way things work, not being afraid of going wrong, and having faith – often against the odds – that mistakes will lead to wonderful new inventions.

The diplomatic rebel has this as a driver, but at the same time, they understand the context in which they’re experimenting. This means they internalize the mission of the company and flow with it, adopting some of the key behaviors of big corporations, to then tell the right stories around these experiments, to address the burning questions the core organization has, like –

  • Why are they innovating when it seems like this is disruptive, distracting and even counterproductive to what we’re doing now?
  • How can I get behind this, when over time it might even cannibalize what we as a corporation – and what I personally – am doing

“In my experience what happens to intrapreneurs is one of two things:

a) They give up and do what they’re told; becoming the company guy that follows the processes
b) They burn out and leave: because the resistance is too strong.”

Herein lies the challenge in understanding our new heroes, who are helping and pioneering corporates into a new and changing world.

How can companies retain, nurture and cultivate these people?

“Millennials and Gen Zs don’t want to get stuck in a silo somewhere. They want to feel part of something bigger, feel the mission underneath their skin, and see their impact directly. This means providing a high level of autonomy for these individuals, who are the next generation of intrapreneurs.”

Diplomatic rebels: made or born?

Are we able to shape a future of executives, doers, and thinkers into diplomatic rebels, or should we seek to find those who already possess the raw potential?

“People can adapt and mold themselves away from their natural comfort zone. Of course, we’re all born with some natural traits and strengths which pull us in one or the other direction, but it’s often then possible to adopt learned behaviors from our less natural side.

Many people will gravitate towards the diplomat role in the corporate world, navigating a big system by allowing it to shape them, being political when needed, and bending around bureaucracy. Few of them actually adopt the rebel nature.”

But if you look to the arts, there’s greater strength on the rebel side. The design thinking movement means bringing these people into the corporate mix, and planting the seed of the rebellious mindset so it can take root. People in these creative spaces will always question why and want to find the root of things.

How can we better integrate rebellion?

“For the traditional corporate career guy, it’s harder to adapt to that rebel nature to become someone that leads or is a rebel. That takes training, and it takes awareness. It’s also a leadership style that should be added to the toolbox of the HR system – that is, leading autonomous teams of intrapreneurs. It’s a totally different discipline than leading a corporate team.”

Then, you have natural rebels. They must learn how to have patience; to know when to wait for the right moment to make change happen – and how to make those changes happen by being empathic. By taking greater stock of their corporate environment, natural rebels can listen and understand some fundamental questions for spearheading change:

  • Why is there resistance?
  • Why are things build in the way they are?

This is a driver for great storytelling and creating buy-in.

“If you’re able to truly be empathetic and tell stories which understand the mentalities, habits, and goals of others, they will feel the story in a completely different way – and that’s what makes people want to change.”

Cultivating a herd of unicorns

We’re at the beginning of a movement, which not only teaches people how to cultivate the diplomatic rebel in the corporate world but how to make use of both valuable forces in their own lives and relationships.

“It’s about more than being an effective employee, it’s about living a balanced life, and stepping up to consistently meet challenge and change in a constructive way.

My hope is that the diplomatic rebel becomes part of a movement to tackle the world’s biggest changes and challenges. It will require a careful balancing act, and we have some work to do. We have very few of these people in corporations because many young people don’t even want to work in this kind of environment: there’s a deficit in how we attract a future generation of diplomatic rebels.”

But corporates are now waking up to this.

“They can no longer be these giant stone-walled defense mechanisms.

Corporates have to become fluid, agile ecosystems – consisting of multiple entities working together with high levels of autonomy.”

This environment would be highly attractive to emerging diplomatic rebels – moving through your career not by getting stuck in one silo and stealing your boss’s job to move anywhere, but instead floating across multiple different companies and projects within this ecosystem.

It’s a chicken-egg situation between individual self-improvement and radical changes in corporate culture.

It means you have to both be the change, and bring the change. What does this ambidexterity look like when it comes to leadership, who have an unquestionable influence on all sides as a common denominator?

“Indeed, they have to use both hands equally well. They have to handle the existing system and how it works – KPIs, hierarchy, politics. But they also have to give freedom and psychological safety to these teams operating in an explorative way. They themselves have to be diplomatic rebels.”

For example, this could involve keeping the same KPIs but measuring them differently with new metrics designed to shift the bigger picture. If you pass the ‘how’ onto your team as well as the ‘what’, you will simply follow what everyone else is doing.

The challenge of the new generation of leaders is managing the duality required to cultivate our future of diplomatic rebellion. Over time, we need to grow a new generation of top executives who are ambidextrous in their leadership style as well as their everyday working behaviors.

These executives will need to understand where you need traditional measurement and management, and where you need to let go of these tools in favor of a completely different paradigm.

We are only human; our new and learned behaviors susceptible to relapse, particularly when a crisis hits – but with time and patience – a pinch of diplomacy and a push of rebellious persistence, we will change in the right way.


Want to learn more and have a chat with David? Join him and a curated group of 120+ innovators at Innov8rs Helsinki, 5 September 2019, where David will be doing a Trending Topic Talk. All speakers and sessions via https://innov8rs.co/helsinki/speakers-sessions/ and registration via https://innov8rs.co/helsinki/