Institutional Entrepreneurship

Social innovation requires a variety of actors, working together or separately, to have impact at a system level. In addition to social entrepreneurs, institutional entrepreneurs are critically important. They are individuals who actively work to change the broader social system – the political, economic, legal or cultural arenas. They are highly skilled at identifying and connecting to opportunities that help a particular social innovation to flourish.

Institutional entrepreneurs notice rhythms and patterns in systems. They usually have deep understanding and trusted relationships that allow them to connect really effectively with powerful champions, political opportunities or unexpected resources. In this way, they gain “system sight” – and they significantly make a difference in helping innovative strategies reach full potential.

“Complexity science embraces life as it is: unpredictable, emergent, evolving and adaptable – not the least bit machine-like. And though it implies that we cannot control the world the way we can control a machine, we are not powerless, either. Using insights about how the world is changed, we can become active participants in shaping those changes.” “Getting to Maybe; how the world is changed”, Westley, Zimmerman, Patton.

As the quote above states, social innovation requires the active participation of individuals (or networks of individuals). And although much is ‘unpredictable’, there is a place for strategic intervention, even though impact is rarely easy to accomplish. There are many elements in a system that must align just so; timing, knowledge, communication, relationships, and opportunity are all involved. Individuals who pay close attention to connecting various elements in a system are referred to as institutional entrepreneurs. Take a look at this slide deck that speaks to this particular role and how it supports social innovation. One of the final frames outlines key activities for these institutional entrepreneurs at different stages of the Adaptive Cycle

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The following collection of brief case studies examines individuals and organizations across one community, the Waterloo Region, that worked as, or with, institutional entrepreneurs (either alone or within networks) to enhance the innovative capacity for positive social impact in the place that they call home.

In the following presentation to a group of scientists, Frances Westley emphasizes the value of the role of the institutional entrepreneur. The first half sets the context; at about the 10:55 minute mark, she begins to specifically speak to the role of agency for systems change. Dive in to institutional entrepreneurship to read the full paper that accompanied this presentation.

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Networking, servant leadership, pattern recognition……and more. The skills required by an institutional entrepreneur are diverse and critically important to system change efforts. Institutional entrepreneurs gain acceptance for innovative alternatives by working to change the beliefs, discourse, understandings, social interactions, resource expenditures and policies or laws which have held a problem in place.

As you develop a clearer understanding of what institutional entrepreneurship is all about, you may be interested to explore how these skills are used and for what kinds of outcomes. Often, institutional entrepreneurs attempt to skillfully work across scales on very broad systemic strategies. They, and their networks, work at multiple scales in order to reduce the resilience of a dominant/stuck system, while increasing the capacity and resilience of a high potential innovation to surface and gain wide acceptance. The following article further explains the relationship between agency and innovations that can significantly shift a system


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Watch the following video for an interview with Al Etmanski about his experiences as an institutional entrepreneur on the ground. Al led the successful campaign that eventually resulted in the world’s first Registered Disability Savings Plan. In this video, he talks about the challenges encountered, important values to hold and strategies related to ongoing scaling of the ‘success stories’.

Note: A complete list of all SiG educational resources can be found in our publicly-available document library. We hope you’ve found this pathway to learning institutional entrepreneurship helpful.