Learning to Pivot with Jennifer Flanagan

Jennifer FlanaganIt’s time for another recap of takeaways from the fascinating conversations happening at the Women’s Executive Breakfast events here in Ottawa. This month, there were a mixture of both familiar and new faces at the Rideau Club, and we were honoured to hear more about “intrapreneurship” from Co-Founder and CEO of Actua, Jennifer Flanagan. Her ideas around this new label, yet gold-standard concept for a growing organization, were relevant and valuable.

Actua is a national charitable organization that engages kids across Canada to get involved with science and reaches out specifically to those who would not otherwise be exposed to the possibilities of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies and career opportunities. She’s an impressive individual, and if you’d like to learn more, check out her bio.


“An intrapreneur is someone who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into reality,” explained Jennifer to a rapt crowd at the WXN Breakfast Series on October 21. “They take the risk to innovate, even in the face of opposition or challenge. The results can be dramatic. Not every time, but often.”

When it comes to supporting the intrapreneur within your company, Jennifer lists three aspects you want to consider:

  1. “Pivot fast,” she says. “You know what’s not working in your organization. Fix it or propose a fix. You’ll need data and you’ll need support.”

  2. “Prepare to fail smart,” says Jennifer. “I know this is the toughest for all—it’s the toughest of all for me. But the first step is admitting failure. If you’re in a situation where that’s happening, try not to fall into that group-think mentality. Applying the learning from that failure will result in a strong product.”

  3. “Embrace shared leadership,” she adds. “Find avenues and ways for leadership to come from any of your team members and see how those ideas can be considered legitimately. Intrapreneurship is not only something that can happen in corporations; it’s a spirit that Actua is nurturing within the next generation of young Canadians. That, I think, is essential for Canada’s future social and economic prosperity.”

One of Actua’s great successes, which came from pivoting quickly, was in bringing their programs to Canada’s Arctic. When Actua’s Iqaluit based program could not find local staff, it was going to mean a group of children would not be exposed to the world of STEM. So, they pulled staff from across Canada, and sent them to go to Iqaluit.

“With minimal on the ground support, we could have easily dismissed the idea as being too complicated or too expensive. But we gave it a try,” she says. “The first year, we sent three staff to Iqaluit to deliver three weeks of camp, and it was hugely successful. Other communities heard about it, and demand grew very quickly. Recognizing that a pivot was the only way we could deliver programming in the North, we started a program that now covers the entire Arctic. It hasn’t gotten any less costly, but over time, the risk has been managed and the complexity has been tamed.”

But when there is risk, there is also the possibility of failure. Her point here hit home for many guests at the breakfast. “The pivot is usually preceded by a ‘fail smart.’ It’s critical to cultivate a respect for failure as opposed to a fear of failure,” she says. “So, in that light, Actua programs are helping kids fail. That is, not surprisingly, a controversial statement. I’ve been saying it in front of groups of people to gauge reaction. So far, it’s been pretty positive.”

For Jennifer—and for most people—the idea of aiming for failure is difficult to actualize. “It’s the intrapreneurial value that I personally have the hardest time embracing,” she says. “I was taught, as most of us were, to avoid failure. This is absolutely holding us back from achieving our full potential.”

According to Jennifer, this is especially true when breaking new ground. “Pilot projects must be allowed to fail. Far too often, there’s no flexibility and failing to achieve the initial objectives of a pilot project can actually strengthen an organization and create a better product to move forward with.”

We should be factoring in failure when building new ideas. Don’t you love that? The way Jennifer describes the correlation, it sounds more than reasonable. After all, how can innovation really happen in an environment where only success is allowed? Talk about pressure that brings no results.

“We want to reclaim the value of failure,” Jennifer adds. “It’s essential to kids, but also happens to be essential to intrapreneurship, to drive innovation in organizations.”

Thanks to Jennifer for opening this conversation around pivoting and failure and shared leadership. If you have any stories from your own work, you are welcome to share here or over on Facebook.

‘Til next week,



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