‘Intrapreneurs’ Improving Internal Innovation

To make innovation more than just a buzzword requires employees to think like entrepreneurs. Create opportunities to learn and exercise creativity.

To make innovation more than just a buzzword requires employees to think like entrepreneurs. The problem is that traditional internal programs don’t focus on the risk-taking and rapid product prototyping that characterizes successful entrepreneurs.

That’s starting to change as companies like Deloitte, Accenture and Barclays have created formal programs centered on a concept called “intrapreneurship.” There’s even a global organization called the League of Intrapreneurs to connect and support them.

Being an intrapreneur combines the stability and structure of working for a company with the challenge and opportunity of working on your own, said Kevin Desouza, author of “Intrapreneurship: Managing Ideas within Your Organization.”

“These employees realize that innovating within the organization gives them a slightly greater chance to actually get a product, solution or new practice implemented,” he said. “And many of these employees may also really like the company so they have a vested interest in seeing the company thrive.”

In late July, an organization called Startup Institute completed its first intrapreneurship pilot program that taught participants how to be innovators within their company. Startup Institute CEO Rich DiTieri said he often sees people who are inspired to be an entrepreneur from watching companies like Apple and Facebook succeed but have no idea what kind of company they want to start.

You can’t start a company if you don’t have a problem to solve, he said. Fortunately, there is no shortage of internal problems to unleash budding intrapreneurs on.

How to Build an Intrapreneur

Desouza said it’s vital that leaders make sure there is a platform where employees regardless of what department they work in have the opportunity to work on their creative ideas while executing daily assignments.

“Trying to find ways that employees can immediately connect with others around an idea, enabling them to showcase their prototypes and get feedback — that’s how most organizations that have an intrapreneurial culture build the capacity around innovation,” he said.

For CLOs, it’s important to shift the conversation about learning from skill development to career enablement, Desouza said.

“A lot of times, learning officers are trying to decide what skills and capabilities employees need to have in order to stay credible and valuable,” Desouza said. “However, in today’s field that responsibility needs to be moved to the employee rather than from a top-down approach.”

Peer-to-peer learning and more collaborative forms of development are useful ways to get employees to share knowledge and experiences about their work.

“You need to give employees the flexibility to create their own learning environment,” Desouza said. “Have employees work as a collective, in small units. Give them a small budget and ask them, ‘What do you think you want to learn as a collective given your day-to-day challenges and realities?’ ”

Leaders play a crucial role in creating an intrapreneurial environment that drives innovation.

“Depending on the organization, it could be as simple as your manager saying, ‘Yes, spend 10 hours a week on this, it’s worth it,’ ” said Startup Institute’s DiTieri. “While other organizations might be way more hierarchical and it has to run all the way up the chain.”

Focus on efficiency and getting roadblocks out of their way, listen to their ideas and look for the ones that are aligned with business objectives, DiTieri said. Intrapreneurs need opportunity and resources to learn.

“Teach them how to look for problems that are worth solving,” he said. “Give them the tools because they might have the intrapreneurial spirit but not an intrapreneurial toolkit.”

Thrive on Chaos

It’s hard to argue against having an entrepreneurial approach but the reality of developing it is complicated. Most companies want to embrace intrapreneurs but few actually do it, said DiTieri.

“By nature of hitting quarterly goals and trying to beat revenue expectations, it’s super hard to step aside from that and figure out how to also make time for proper intrapreneurship and innovation,” he said.

In fact, most companies that resist developing intrapreneurship don’t know that they are. “Only the companies who are actively thinking about it and training their managers and team members how to do it are actually having success with it,” he said.

Conflicting priorities and false perceptions about innovation may be holding some companies back from investing in intrapreneurs.

“The perception that you might lose control and might trigger chaos in terms of the normal procedures may hold a few managers back,” Desouza said. “But my recommendation is always to thrive on chaos rather than fear it.”