Program entrepreneurship for beginners

Policy entrepreneurship is a powerful approach for getting things done. In adapting it to in-house programs, there’s a beginner approach.

The basics:

  1. Choose somewhere to start. There’s a temptation to stall here, especially as people ask you, “Is this really the most impactful thing we can do?” The intellectually honest answer is probably “I’m not sure,” but part of embracing the “how” is being willing to take the risk of making a call.
  2. Identify what specifically needs to be your final step. Who makes the commit or presses the button or approves the purchase order? Then work backwards from there. How do things get approved for them to do? How does work get on their backlog? What documents have to be written?
  3. Tie up the loose ends. What else needs to be defined, decided, or written down? The more of this you can do, or outline for other people to help you with, the more likely people are to help you.

This produces some powerful effects:

  1. It gets you thinking strategically. Strategy gets talked about as a lot of different things. At its core, it is: Having a concrete goal and an understanding of the steps and resources required to get there. This is the antidote to the kind of organizational codependence that just tries to get people to care like you do. Nobody cares about information architecture.
  2. We become experts in how our organizations work. Most enterprises are high-context environments, where things happen in strange, historically-contingent ways. You need to know about all of it. It builds credibility and gives us the specific information you need to work backwards through the steps. Institutionalism theory of change n this approach, it’s essential to understand the mechanisms by which change actually happens (or not). You have to be able to get close enough to understand the detailed workings without getting so close that you lose your critical distance and desire to change it. That expertise gives us another super power: We’ll be able to recognize Windows of opportunity for the changes we want to make.
  3. We’ll realize we don’t need the CEO, after all. People in positions of executive authority do have a lot of power, but it’s often limited in its ability to make things happen. There’s a much greater chance that you need the person who owns the backlog, makes the agendas, or controls the budget. And usually, they’ll just talk to you.


Mintrom, Michael. Policy Entrepreneurs and Dynamic Change . Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Entrepreneurship is characterized by a desire to do things differently and a willingness to invest (time, resources, reputation), hoping for future returns. p. 2-3

Policy entrepreneurs think strategically. That is, they have a concrete goal and understanding of the steps and resources required to get there. p. 13