Using personal and lived examples, Brent Witgen shares his learning on intrapreneurship with Tirza Hollenhorst. Brent presents several unexpected observations about cultural differences, setting big goals, and the culture of innovation in Scandinavia.

Intrapreneurship: Creating a startup environment within a corporate one

Tirza Hollenhorst: Brent, thanks for joining me today. I’m curious about your experience with intrapreneurship and the insights that you’ve discovered during your many years at Novo Nordisk. But first, tell us a little bit about your background.

Brent Witgen: Thanks for having me. My corporate experience is primarily with Novo Nordisk, in the pharmaceutical industry. Prior to that I was pursuing an academic track. Before I even heard of the term intrapreneur, I actually called myself an “wantrepreneur.” Many of my family and friends are entrepreneurs. I’d always wanted to be an entrepreneur, although I didn’t have the right motivation for it. So I tried to apply what I was learning to a corporate environment. I found that there’s a shift in mindset away from being a top down decision maker as an entrepreneur toward being an intrapreneur under a corporate umbrella, which has governance and an overall vision. One learns to maneuver within that environment, that culture, and to develop the strategy to achieve the ambitions of the greater organization.

It’s what I would call the startup environment within the corporate environment. You have different occasions where you may have a startup within the company—you’re going to build a new department, a new division, a new area—and you’re going to grow this organically. You may have other situations where you need to revitalize a department or a function. There is an absolute turnaround needed. I had the privilege of entering into at our Beijing affiliate a few years ago. This was unique because it was under the corporate, Novo Nordisk structure. We were half a world away, literally, and in a very different culture geographically, where the Nordic norms aren’t exactly applied.

Differing approaches to risk-taking between Nordic and Asian Business Environments

TH: How did you find doing business in the Asian environment different than doing business in the Nordic environment?

BW: There was a lot of empowerment in Beijing. I enabled my team to make decisions, quickly learned from my mistakes, and rapidly pivoted in order to achieve success and results. What I experienced there was an appetite for taking risk, for venturing into areas of unknown and taking chances. I found this to be exceptionally more obvious in China than in Scandinavia.

TH: Wow. I tend to think of Asian environments as more risk averse and less willing to stand out than we are here in the States. But what I hear you saying is that the Scandinavian environment is very risk averse.

BW: Definitely. I can add some more nuance to this because it might not be uniform across Asia or Scandinavia. Many of the people I have worked with in Asia have spent time working or getting an education in the US or parts of Asia. Whereas I found in Europe, especially northern Europe, people tend to stay close to home. They may venture out to another country for a few months at a time to study or to travel, but living or working in a dramatically different environment is rather rare.

TH: And so things just become a little bit insular.

BW: I think that’s one way to describe it, insular. I’ll add that the incentives to take risks in an environment like the Nordic’s are really limited. Generally speaking from a social welfare perspective, it’s very safe in northern Europe to do what you’ve always done and continue to follow the course of the five-year plan. Then if you’re not deviating from that or testing the boundaries or exploring or even failing, you probably have a long and relatively safe career. Whereas in Asia and especially Beijing, a majority of the professionals had to take great risks, like move across the country for university or across the globe to their first job. Many are separated from their family for great periods of time. Then there’s a greater willingness to take risks, because they have exercised these options previously and are open minded to the benefits of embracing uncertainty and all of the opportunity that comes along with it.

TH: That makes total sense. Of course the Chinese population right now is very much a migrant population, wherein people have to go great distances and take risks and put themselves out there in order to achieve. Whereas in many of the Scandinavian countries, things are quite stable. Also, there’s a relatively low population, so there isn’t the same sense of competition. If you play by the rules, you’ll come out well, not just all right. You’ll actually have a really high standard of living if you just play by the rules.

BW: Yes, that’s right. I think you hit the nail on the head. There are probably a lot of historical reasons for this. There’s a lot of insecurity in China, and people had to really sacrifice and adapt to circumstances. I would say Scandinavia has been relatively well protected in the last half century. Not too much has changed.

How change and failure can propel success

TH: What has been your experience of change in the way you do business, and what does it say about the future of the way we work?

BW: Change is scary. Change is intimidating. Change is overwhelming. The thought of it even enlisted some anxiety amongst the Scandinavians.

When in a well-established corporate environment, which is conservative by many means and generally quite profitable, doing things differently or taking another approach to an issue or challenge is frightening for many. It’s also unsettling because it sort of shakes the core existence of the status quo.

In fact, I think it’s rather simple, which I’ve come back to multiple times. It’s this progress principal. I find progress itself, just a little bit of progress, even small baby steps of progress, at the outset of a much larger goal or mission to be incredibly reinforcing and rewarding to achieve results. We had a clear overview of what exactly needed to be accomplished and then set a goal of a six-month timeframe to complete it. We ran it like a project with a sprint on a weekly and monthly basis, along with interim targets. Then we celebrated those victories and even stretched the goals to make them perhaps uncomfortable.

TH: So focusing on small, incremental wins and looking at it from a team perspective is where you found the most success?

BW: Definitely. Of course, the larger mission to be accomplished had to be clear. Then with those incremental achievements, it’s much more bite sized and manageable. Celebrating successes along the way and even reinforcing and rewarding the right behavior builds a general team spirit that is positive and inspiring.

TH: So if you want to be creating big changes or are trying to do large turnarounds and make a radical change, it’s going to be met with a lot of resistance. But making small, incremental changes in a clear direction and focusing on rewarding the whole team is where you found success.

BW: In my experience, the big, hairy, audacious goal of visionary dreaming of what is possible can sometimes be too much for people to wrap their heads around. I have found that it pays to be wiser to hold off a little bit on grand ambition. Gain some quick wins to get some momentum, then use that energy to fuel the longer process towards realizing a greater ambition or vision.

Tying it all together

TH: Our theme here is intrapreneurship and innovating in different environments. Can you tie that back to the Scandinavian experience, or tie it into the role of humans, human leadership, and culture in the role of innovation?

BW: Yeah, I think delegation has been sort of the secret sauce to my success towards doing things a little differently and achieving more. I’ll use one example without being too specific in the delegation: it’s a story where trust and confidence in others to make the right decisions really pays off.

When you have employees or colleagues who are genuinely excited and ready to come and give their best, but they just need some direction to move towards, then giving them that autonomy and delegating responsibilities to them is incredibly powerful. Then it’s important to step away from the details, avoid micromanaging, and empower the person to make decisions and report back with status updates at a reasonable time. And of course, it’s important to give inspiring feedback along the way.

TH: Thank you so much for your time, Brent. I know that I have had several of my biases and preconceptions called into question. I always find it very illustrative to talk to people dedicated to innovation and culture change. I think that as an American working in Scandinavia you are in a unique position to see the opportunities and barriers around you.

Stay tuned for our next interview with Shachaf Snir, Global Innovation Business Lead at Amdocs.

*This article has been edited for readability and brevity.