Intrapreneurs: What business can learn from the Latin Kings

People who successfully lead organizations to innovate share distinct personal traits, according to the author of a new book. And the types of people who exemplify those traits may surprise people.

The triple crown hand sign of the Latin Kings
Pedro Armestre | AFP | Getty Images
The triple crown hand sign of the Latin Kings

Alexa Clay, author of "The Misfit Economy," pointed to five human characteristics possessed by "intrapreneurs," people who change organizations from the inside. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado last week, she contrasted intrapreneurs with people who adhere to a "bureaucratic mandate" within an organization.

Hustle

Clay's first characteristic of intrapreneurs—"hustle"—roughly translates to the ability to create something out of nothing. She identified the trait based on her research with King Tone, former head of the Latin Kings street gang. The word "hustle" also gets used by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and its core meaning is similar among both groups. (Tweet This)

"The hustle connects this Horatio Alger idea," Clay told CNBC this week. "I could see the way that drug dealers who were running these businesses had this ability to create something out of nothing in an impoverished area. As much as I don't support those types of activities, it was interesting to see those kind of instincts at work."

Copying

Clay's second trait is perhaps just as likely to provoke controversy. The act of copying patented items and then reselling the ideas behind them is an act that most Americans associate with China today. But Americans in the 19th century commonly copied patented items from Europe and commercialized them in the United States, Clay said.

As a current example, the author pointed to "patent robbers" in India who reverse-engineer patented Western pharmaceuticals and then develop their own generic medicines. Those new drugs are available to poor people, creating a new market that Western pharma firms have sometimes then reacted to by developing more tiered pricing systems.

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Clay said she's been approached by a major pharmaceutical for insights on how it can make its R&D efforts more collaborative instead of proprietary—a sort of open-source take on product development.

Hacking

The hacker ethos is something Clay described as a "dogged determination to make all information free." And while she acknowledged that hacking can be immoral, as a concept it has application beyond computing. Self-described intrapreneur Dave Gallon, an audience member in Aspen who is also director of strategic insight and innovation at Toyota, described the idea as "taking things apart and breaking them to make them better."

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"Hacking is now a verb that's applied to anything. You can Ikea-hack furniture," Clay said. "I think there's a lot we can draw from the hacking economy."

Provoking

Innovators can't be afraid to provoke people. Clay pointed to Henry David Thoreau as a figure whose quintessentially American thinking on self-reliance was a provocation at the time he preached it.

"As much as he was a hermit, he was also an instigator," she said.

A more recent group of provocateurs is the Occupy Movement: "People said it didn't succeed, but it did in fact bring the conversation about inequality into the open. And that's a provocation."

Pivoting

Finally, there's the ability of innovators to shift from one world to another, taking the things they learn in place and applying them beneficially in an entirely different environment.

Clay gave the example of a former Balkans aid worker who took the lessons he gained in that line of work and then applied them at one of the major U.S. business consulting firms. Becoming too focused on metrics designed within an organization, at the expense of thinking from the outside, is a hazard, she said.

"It's not about meeting success metrics," she said. "It's not about achievement-based work where you're trying to hit goals that somebody else has set for you."