Intrapreneurship – Innovating from within

How could a typical entrepreneur be defined? Resourceful, explorative, curious, creative, risk-taker, questioning, an opportunity seeker? Whether or not you agree with this list, the fact is that people who do demonstrate these values should be equally as valuable in an established enterprise as a small start-up.

Why is it then that corporations struggle so much with holding on to, valuing and benefiting from the entrepreneurial employee (also known as the interapreneur).

Coined by Gifford Pinchot in 1978 an intrapreneur is “a person within a large corporation who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation” (Wikipedia).

Steve Jobs, Apple’s Chairman, helped popularise the term in an article in “Newsweek” in 1985, when Jobs said of Intrapreneurship within Apple, “The Macintosh team was what is commonly known as intrapreneurship… a group of people going, in essence, back to the garage, but in a large company.”

To quote Ingrid Vanderveldt, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell: “Intrapreneurship can be just as impactful and certainly just as critical as entrepreneurship. That same drive, creativity and passion for growth that entrepreneurs have can be used inside a company to benefit customers and team members.”   

The problem is of course that corporates tend to be conservative and cautious, preferring well trodden paths to forging their own way. Not an approach that leaves a lot of room for an intrapreneur to explore, create and try new things out. The fact is is that there is something decisively uneasy about the relationship between the entrepreneur and the established enterprise.

Speaking from an ex-employees perspective who went on to scratch my own entrepreneurial itch, there were several occasions in different companies when my entrepreneurial traits were suppressed, my initiative ignored and my proposed projects discarded. Of course I ended up leaving and working for myself.

A company that has employees that go beyond the call of duty, employees that are inspired by opportunities to improve things and make a difference, need make sure these individuals are recognised, encouraged and supported. How can they do this? If the desire to encourage entrepreneurial behaviour is genuinely there, what are the practical obstacles that need to be overcome?

What of the enterprise hierarchy, procedures, practices and mindsets that can often place handcuffs on the intrapreneur?

What roles are involved in a productive entrepreneurial culture? How does a company go beyond recognising the value of the entrepreneurial spirit, to supporting and and encouraging individuals? How do companies help shape “raw” ideas of intrapreneurs into profitable business propositions?

There are some very well known and successful brands among the enterprises that have made a conscious effort to make room for the intrapreneur and implement an entrepreneurial culture.

One of the most well-known is the “Skunk Works” group at Lockheed Martin, often seen to be the predecessor of the R&D department.

A skunkworks project often operates with a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. These projects are often undertaken in secret with the understanding that if the development is successful then the product will be designed later according to the usual process.

“[3M, Google and Atlasssian] all give their employees spaces of time to work on what they are curious about. They have complete autonomy over how they work, who they work with and what they experiment with. Ironically, given this freedom, they tend to work on creative solutions that will benefit their company – a win win situation if ever there was one!

This is not a recent development either; 3M employees have had 15% time every week since the 1930s and if you have ever used a Post it / Sticky note you have been the beneficiary of this 15% time. Remarkably, Google’s famed 20% time, the equivalent of 1 working day per week, has been responsible for 50% of Google’s products including Gmail and Google News. Finally, Atlassian, an Australian software company, organizes a Fed Ex Day every quarter. This challenges employees to ’deliver’ new products & prototypes overnight.”  (Education is my life, Matt Bebbington, jan12)

What can we learn from these companies? How does a CEO begin encouraging intrapreneurship in a more conservative corporation?

How do you, as a leader or learning professional, give employees this “licence to innovate”? Can there be any conditions on such a “licence”?

I suspect that the more uncertain life becomes, the more effort organisations need to make to encourage and support the entrepreneurial spirit. If an individuals job is not secure, what greater risk is there in starting our on their own? Dare I suggest that the enterprise needs entrepreneurs much more than entrepreneurs need the enterprise?

So how does this apply to the L&D community?  Many people in the industry complain that they are treated as order takers or production managers without influence. It is the skills of the intrapreneur that will change all that – when we go out there into our businesses committed to making a difference, and feeling courageous enough and free enough to use our creative skills and insights into human behaviour to develop game changers for our enterprises. It has often been said that it is easier to ask for forgiveness for something we have done (where we might have taken a risk) than for something we did not do. In L&D we pride ourselves on being different – we must now use that difference to demonstrate through our energy and creativity that we are positive influences in enterprise success

Join us on Thursday 12 July at 16.00 BST/11.00 EDT/08.00 PT to explore how we can empower ourselves in L&D as Intrapreneurs


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