House of Cards: Lessons in Power and Politics for Corporate Entrepreneurs

No spoilers for Season 3: Based on earlier Seasons.

Wake up your inner entrepreneur – it’s time to disrupt yourself. By hauge2.

Take Kodak, Nokia and Commodore in their prime time, and ask yourself why your company is any different right now.

Getting enthusiasm about your ideas at lunch is one thing – getting the organization behind your mission to innovate, is another.

Disobedient innovation, or intrapreneurship as we prefer to call it, requires political skills: Any good idea in an established organization is also a threat to someone (anyone who perpetuates the status quo).

Master the politics – become an effective entrepreneur

But you’re not an underdog. You’re Frank Underwood, ready to outmaneuver the opposition with political virtuosity, lean thinking and entrepreneurial charm.

Like the president, who unknowingly unleashes a monster when double-crossing Underwood in the first episode of season 1, established companies who hunger for continuation unknowingly unleash the entrepreneurs in their people. Preventing entrepreneurship is after all the cardinal sin of a technology company in its prime. Thank God entrepreneurs now learn to deal with the Washington in their companies.

Here’s how Frank Underwood would disrupt your company from within:

Take a step back, understand the bigger picture

Declare war, but don’t tell anyone – except a few: When Underwood starts off House of Cards by declaring war against everyone, he selectively unfolds his scheme to a few comrades-in-arms. The rest is on a need-to-know basis. Underwood makes sure the few he does involve understand the bigger picture, while they “devour the whale one bite at a time.”

Maintain a small alliance with a shared vision

As an undercover entrepreneur, you need a few allies, whom you trust and who have lots to gain from your success. Who in your company wants what you want? Who in your company thinks the same way you do?

Build a small, secret alliance with one shared vision. Establish an efficient communication channel, and meet regularly in secrecy to evaluate progress.

Of all the things I place in high regard, rules are not one of them

To know the rules, you have to break the rules: Frank Underwood didn’t ask anyone for permission when he starts playing everyone against each other to become vice president.

Neither do you. A dedicated budget takes time to establish, it comes with strings attached, and people at stake. Don’t ask for it. Use your imagination to find lean ways of exploring your ideas. Can the first iterations be concealed in a marketing budget? Technology prototyping? Competence building?

Use third party tools that are cheap when traffic numbers or number of users is low. Explore customer needs with interviews, paper or prototypes (you will not believe what kind of feedback you get from showing a Powerpoint faking your groundbreaking software to come). If your idea turns out to be the wrong idea, make sure it fails early, so you have time and energy for your next idea.

At early stages of your quest for innovation, use whatever is present in existing plans and budgets to verify your idea. Remember, talking to friends of friends is always free.

There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth

Follow the truthWhen the president questions Underwood’s idea to support Russo as governor candidate, he counters the skepticism with a series of facts – pleasant as well as unpleasant – about Russo.

As an intrapreneur, you face a catch 22: You’re not allowed to work on anything new before you’ve proven it. 

The only evidence everyone accepts is a horde of happy, paying customers. In the beginning, however, you don’t want thousands of clamorous customers that expect a proven product. Neither can you do without any customers at all (you need to verify that your idea actually works). 

Hence, you want early adopter customers who expect an immature product and who want to influence you while there’s still time. (They are the darlings you will kill later on.)

Test your idea early and secretly on real customers. Stay under the radar until your product becomes so popular, even the organization that owns it can’t disregard it any longer.

What does he need?

Is your company a House of Cardinal Sins?

Is your company a House of Cardinal Sins?

Meet noise with diplomacy: When Underwood makes congress pass a bill even his own superior is against, he uses a big whiteboard to map out what everybody in congress are after, and how they are likely to vote. This makes him understand who to avoid (there’s no point in even trying) and who to persuade. He gets what he wants because he knows what everybody else wants.

In an established corporation, what better decision forecasts are there than incentives? KPIs tell you the difference between what people say and what they’re after. Know someone’s KPIs, and you will know how that someone is going make decisions.

Keep track of how influential people are incentivized, and which incentives support your mission.

Decisions based on emotion aren’t decisions, at all. They’re instincts. Which can be of value. The rational and the irrational complement each other. Individually they’re far less powerful.

Appreciate irrationality: Why do you think Underwood goes out of his way to help Linda Vasquez get her son into Stanford?

Although facts and numbers eventually tell you to build a complete product, there are other forces at play. Even top management has feelings, especially about the past. When you encounter reactions that seem irrational to you, understand why it is rational to your counterpart.

How have big decisions been made in the past? Who has a track record of being unfairly treated? Who has been (almost) on top with an innovation, and then suddenly failed?

When you have all the facts, switch mode and become a psychologist.

Welcome to Washington!

Finally, you should talk to the camera: While fighting yourself through the corporate dungeons, tell the rest of the world what you’re thinking and how you’re doing. Make people take part in the story behind your product. Who knows, with enough traction you may even be revealed by someone inside your own House of cardinal sins ..

Alas, he's back.

Alas, he’s back.

So how do you justify your disobedience? Is it wise to move against the direction of your company? Status quo at your prime time is not only a cardinal sin for technology companies: The same goes for your career. Deciding to stay put and enjoy what you’ve already accomplished is the beginning of the end, because it inevitably makes you useless.

It boils down to what you ultimately want to accomplish.

There is however one thing you should not learn from Frank Underwood: No matter how badly you want to succeed with innovation, don’t turn into a psychopath.

Unlike what I believe is the final destiny of mr. F.U., your house will not collapse around you. What you create will not be made from a stack of cards.

Good luck!

Want more dirty tricks? A follow-up from Season 3 is coming – announced on @hauge2!

Anders Haugeto (36) is entrepreneur, engineer and experiment designer helping the customers of Iterate innovate faster. He uses systems thinking, business model generation and Lean Startup to create innovation monsters – intrapreneurs – who’s mission in life is to disrupt their organization from within. 


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