Intrapreneurs: The Key to Your Organization’s Future

Dear Business Leader, there are people right now in your organization with the ideas and drive you seek to take your business to the next level–or at least start the company on the way to new innovation. They are intrapreneurs. You will do well to invest in them, and in their ideas.

According to Gifford Pinchot III, the revered proponent of intrapreneurship, these intrapreneurs are:

  • Employees who do for corporate innovation what an entrepreneur does for his or her start-up.
  • Dreamers who do.
  • Self-appointed general managers of a new idea.
  • Drivers of change to make business a force for good.

They are the ones who challenge the status quo, bring forward new ideas, and find fulfillment in translating new ideas to change and innovation.

Sometimes, they are the odd employees who think differently, who appear way more critical of the new product, the ones constantly wondering, often aloud, “maybe there is a better way” to carry out a certain process or to design a certain product.

The Demand and Opportunity for Innovation

The global startup culture is both a boon and a threat to established organizations. In a world where there are no guaranteed markets or revenue sources, in one where the competition is not just other players in your industry, but those in unrelated industries, companies must ramp up their innovativeness in order to survive and thrive in the market.

This innovativeness is how readily you adopt new ways in your operations or introduce positive change in how the customer experiences your offering. There are generally three ways to achieve this:

  1. Acquire another business to leverage its innovation.
  2. Partner with external parties such as other startups to pursue innovation.
  3. Develop internal capacity to mine ideas, explore and nurture them to deliver value to the customer.

Of those three means, the ability for organizations to develop innovation internally is highly significant. Such innovation helps the organization to grow organically and offers obvious cost-savings over going outside to shop for innovation, at least in the short term. How do you achieve this internal-driven innovation? You can achieve this through intrapreneurs.

Examples of Intrapreneurs’ Impact

For instance, Sony’s largest business segment as of 2020 was its game and network services (Source). Did you know that the top executives at Sony rejected the idea of developing a gaming division when an employee Ken Kutaragi first proposed it? They thought it was a waste of time, a fad not worth the company’s time and resources. There are more examples of intrapreneurs literally at work:

  • Gmail came into existence because a Google employee Paul Bucheit invented it outside his routine job.
  • Freddy Anzures first came up with Apple’s iconic ‘swipe to unlock’ feature.
  • Shoppers on Amazon can be assured of two-day delivery because employees developed Amazon Prime.
  • Starbucks ramped up its personalized customer experience because one intrapreneurial barista had a habit of writing customer names on coffee cups instead of the coffee type.

Typically you would expect to find intrapreneurs in product development, marketing, and sales departments or teams but increasingly the organization must look beyond such roles in identifying and enabling entrepreneurial employees to share and implement their ideas. The organization thrives as intrapreneurs drive innovation within it.

How to Empower Employees to Become Intrapreneurs

Here are some steps you can begin to take to awaken an intrapreneurial spirit in your employees:

  • Become a Learning Organization. Encourage everyone to learn and grow. Provide learning opportunities and amenities. Nurture a community of curious people, learners and thinkers. Evaluate your learning and development programs to include everyone.
  • Bring your people closer to your customers. Find opportunities to expose your people to customers so they understand your business better. People across the organization will feel empowered to pitch in when they experience the processes of serving your customers firsthand.
  • Encourage everyone to share ideas. If you have a think-tank, a committee or team responsible for generating ideas, repurpose the team to serve as an engine for collecting and refining ideas.
  • Demonstrate that you value good ideas. Sponsor the ideas or have other leaders adopt the ideas employees propose. Recognize and reward ideas. Let your people develop confidence in the process.
  • Ask for problems, ask for solutions. Share problems, ask for solutions. If you are defensive when employees come up with problems, they will clam up when they should be initiating or furthering conversations that lead to change. Rather than justifying the company’s position, ask for solutions instead. In fact, go one step further by being the one to share problems first and invite employees to provide ideas and solutions.
  • Give new ideas room to grow without the pressures of the regular performance metrics. Large companies do this when they expend much resources on new innovations and experiments without expecting returns for extended periods. One way to achieve this as a small business is to take small bets. Encourage new ideas with minimal resources in test markets, look for ways to piggyback new ideas on your current cash cows.
  • Allow idea champions to lead or take active roles in developing the ideas. As appropriate, support them with a cross-functional team to see the idea through to delivery.
  • Recognize and reward good ideas. Work with the mix that works best for your organization–company recognitions, cash awards, promotions, and others.

Intrapreneurs Drive Innovation from Within

More than ever before, innovation driven from within will help businesses stay relevant in the ever-demanding marketplace. Without this, your business cannot be nimble enough to adapt to changing market conditions. No matter how well-established your business is, it must adapt to the environment, and in many cases learn to pivot like a startup. Raising a company of intrapreneurs will create a force of innovation that will help your business thrive in the seasons ahead.

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