Change from within: our work with systemic intrapreneurs

Our Head of Intrapreneurship, Lydia Hascott, reflects on a year working to support changemakers inside the financial system.

Building a new financial system needs to happen from the inside out, as well as the bottom up. Working inside the financial system has always been a core part of our theory of change, but in the face of rising levels of problem debt, the growing climate crisis and a lack of investment in local economies, it feels more urgent than ever.

So, in 2019 we began to pilot a new programme supporting finance professionals to put ecological integrity and social wellbeing at the heart of their organisations. Over the course of the year, we’ve tested how we can harness our systemic incubation expertise to build a community of professionals with the vision, skills and social capital to catalyse a shift towards sustainability and social purpose within their institutions.

Our commitment to action learning means we treat everything as an experiment. Our core questions for the pilot were:

  • Why, when and how is it most effective for the Lab to engage with mainstream finance professionals and their institutions?
  • What types of support are most effective in helping finance professionals create tangible, purpose-driven change in their organisations?
  • How can the Lab engage with mainstream finance professionals and their institutions in a way that supports our charity’s mission while maintaining our credibility and independence?

With an initial focus on banking, we tested a variety of initiatives supporting intrapreneurs to develop sustainable financial innovations and embed change in the heart of their organisations. We’ve learnt a huge amount about the forces enabling and hindering transformation in banks, and about the Lab’s role in supporting that change. As we look ahead to 2020, we take with us three key lessons.

Learning 1: The dangers of purpose-driven business 

The language of ‘purpose’ has entered the mainstream over recent years. We’ve been pleased to see that many mainstream banks are seeking to articulate a purpose beyond profit, but we’ve observed that the real challenge comes in adapting core strategy, operations and culture to deliver on that. The first port of call for banks is often to develop specific propositions focused on positive social or environmental impact, while leaving the rest of the business unchanged. It’s much more difficult to do the deeper work of fundamentally reorienting the company as a whole to deliver on that purpose – but this is the real work that is required. You can read more on the perils of ‘purpose’ here.

Learning 2: The soft stuff is the hard stuff  

Finance is a human system. It is not enough for an intrapreneur to only focus on developing a new product or service: to close the gap between a bank’s stated purpose and actual behaviour, they must explore the structural factors and mindsets which hold the status quo in place. Many of our initiatives this year have drawn on this insight, which is encapsulated in our Iceberg Model for systemic change in finance.

In collaboration with the Climate Safe Lending network, we designed and facilitated the Climate Safe Learning Lab for banking professionals driving climate finance within their institutions. The Learning Lab offered a space to explore the organisational, behavioural and cultural barriers they experience in this work. Participants agreed that the greatest obstacles to embedding climate finance were not technical, but in deploying the soft skills needed to build buy-in, identify allies and shift mindsets about the role of banks. You can read the insights report from the workshop here.

Learning 3: Change starts with connection and community

Many passionate, purpose-driven people exist within mainstream financial institutions, but they often feel isolated and disconnected from likeminded individuals. Over the course of the year, we connected with over fifty finance professionals actively working to transform their institutions from the inside. Through peer learning events, coaching circles, workshops and many cups of coffee, we connected them with one another to share learning and find their tribe:

“I’d not heard of intrapreneurship before and had been feeling a bit bewildered about the future, torn between breaking loose and starting a business or trying to find a role where I can drive more change from within. I’m often frustrated that I can’t articulate just how strongly I feel I must do more to make banking better from the inside – and then I discover that being wired this way is an actual thing! I’m not (just) a misfit, I’m part of a movement and didn’t realise it.”

“It is so rare to have a group so intimate and focused on helping each other. I honestly can’t think of another opportunity like this!”

The Lab’s unique role

Our pilot interventions have taught us that the Lab has an important role to play at the levels of the individual, institution and wider system, all of which are deeply interconnected. Our holistic view of the financial system and our ability to work with the human factors at the base of the ‘iceberg’ brings a new dimension to intrapreneurs’ work, as does the Lab’s diverse network of innovators and influencers building a financial system that serves people and planet.

Building on this learning, in 2020 we will continue to build our intrapreneur community, as well as working in strategic partnership with financial institutions seeking to align their strategy and operations with a socially useful purpose. Through this work, we’ll create a community of practice that supports systemic intrapreneurs; we’ll increase their understanding of and commitment to a financial system that serves people and planet; and we’ll empower them to lead transformation within their organisations.


If you are a systemic intrapreneur within a financial institution, join the Lab Community here to access support and connections with fellow intrapreneurs.

To find out more about this work or support it in any way contact our Head of Intrapreneurship lydia@financeinnovationlab.org.