Corporations across the world are scrambling to figure out how to innovate and grow in an increasingly competitive business environment. Intrapreneurship, the concept of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset and skill set from within an existing organization, is enabling many large companies to extract value through employee-powered corporate innovation.
Companies like Adobe, Royal Bank of Canada, 3M, and Lockheed Martin are getting it right by crafting their programs with four essential building blocks of intrapreneurship. These building blocks were discussed at the most recent Intrapreneurship Conference in San Francisco, where RocketSpace hosted a group of about 30 enterprises to share best practices for designing innovation strategies.
What do companies with successful intrapreneurship programs have that other companies don't? Primarily employee engagement and purpose-led management, both of which boost an organization's bottom line. In fact, 85% of purpose-led companies showed positive growth, while 42% of companies without a clearly defined and articulated purpose showed a drop in revenue, according to a 2016 global report on purpose at work.
For organizations looking to empower their employees to become intrapreneurs capable of solving key business problems from within, here are four building blocks to consider, along with stories of how other large organizations have achieved success through these strategies.
1. Know Your Employees
Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike are made, not born. Corporate leaders can absolutely cultivate an intrapreneurial mindset in their employees. But to do so, leaders must first understand the unique needs and talents of their employees, as well as the resources they need to successfully innovate.
The best intrapreneurs are creative, willing to take risks, and comfortable navigating ambiguity, complexity and unstructured pathways. These are the characteristics corporate leaders should be looking for when selecting team members to work on or lead innovation projects. Understanding which characteristics may be lacking then allows leaders to design strategies to generate the missing pieces.
Corporations can cultivate these traits by setting up systems to identify potential. Adobe, for example, has its own innovation toolkit called Adobe Kickbox, which helps employees to run their own experiments and navigate the uncomfortable complexities of the process. Every employee is given an Adobe Kickbox kit with a prepaid credit card, a proven framework for innovation, and a channel for communicating results to management and the C-suite.
Adobe's methodology enables employees to experiment while giving managers a heads up on projects that are showing business results.
2. Frame the Business Problem
Most leaders view intrapreneurship as a one-time event or a check box. "Okay, we tried it, now we can go back to how we've always done it." Innovation, though, should be ongoing.
The biggest obstacle to success for most intrapreneurship programs is that they start with the solution instead of the problem. The best advice for any innovation: Start by finding a problem that, if solved, would present a valuable business opportunity.
We've heard "nice to have" stories of companies hosting annual hackathons that yield thousands of ideas...but with little organizational impact. The desired result should be an impactful path forward, not simply a pool of concepts that will never live to see implementation. So, before your corporate innovation teams suggests "Let's do a hackathon" or "Let's host an accelerator," think about the challenges facing your business and frame a solution space and a path forward.
One of RocketSpace's clients, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), is particularly well-versed in framing its business problems before embarking on intrapreneurship projects, likely due to how the company has structured its innovation activities. RBC's dedicated innovation team collaborates with units across the bank to scope needs and then identify solutions. Because their focus is holistic, they are well-equipped to identify problems and opportunities across the company and then breathe life into solutions with dedicated resources. With a charge like that, it's no wonder they're locked in on impactful outcomes.
Whether your company has a dedicated innovation team or not, the ability to frame business problems before starting projects saves a lot of headaches. It certainly cuts down on pet projects, too. Organizations should move away from the employee engagement mindset and closer to a mentality of "If we can solve this problem, we could save $X annually."
3. Understand Risk Tolerance
Both entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial innovation entails risk. When you're creating something new, there is always a risk that the project will turn out much different than what you intended it to be, for better or worse. Defining expectations up front of what your company is and is not willing to act on helps to build understanding of perhaps the biggest obstacle to intrapreneurship: risk tolerance.
For any intrapreneurial pursuit, there has to be a tolerance for risk; the work is in defining the right scope and bounds for what your corporation is willing to move forward with.
To get the scope right, there needs to be enough risk tolerance to allow new ideas to be born and tested, but enough definition and honesty to protect employees from spinning in circles expending effort on something that will ultimately get squashed.
Risk can be measured in many ways, such as time, resources and even morale. How much time or money are you willing to spend to see business outcomes? And what will you do if -- and when -- employee morale hits a low point during the search for solutions?
Office supplies giant 3M provides us with a classic example that showcases how a healthy risk tolerance can yield huge and often unexpected successes. Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was attempting to create an extremely strong adhesive for an aerospace application, but instead created a light bonding agent that didn't leave a residue. Instead of throwing it away because it didn't solve the problem at hand, he was in an environment that allowed him to persist with an idea outside of the original scope, allowing new ideas to be born and tested. Dr. Silver's "fail" ultimately led to the invention of the Post-It note. Sometimes the best ideas are accidental.
4. Instill Ownership and Get Out of the Way
Corporates will get the most value out of intrapreneurship programs if they don't micromanage the teams. Intrapreneurs are inherently creative and self-driven. Give them the resources to fly, and then get out of the way, so that good ideas have a chance to flourish.
Intrapreneurship success can be unintentionally impeded when corporations become overly-prescriptive when operating at scale. Successful organizations break down those barriers by giving their teams a long leash and the space to create.
Of course, there are limits, but a well-defined starting point with a dose of ownership will ultimately result in autonomy, which is the best way to give intrapreneurs the room to flourish.
Lockheed Martin's "Skunk Works" project is one famous example of intrapreneurial autonomy at its best. The corporation allowed a group of employees to work as an autonomous organization with a small, focused team, independent and freed from the corporate obstacles that can halt an innovation program. Skunk Works created some of the most innovative aircraft models, including the SR71. Moral of the story: Don't block your innovation team. Instead, set the course and provide the support and resources they need to thrive.
Intrapreneurship is an essential process for corporations to identify and solve internal problems. What better way to grow than through those closest to your business?
If you're trying to start an intrapreneurship practice, make sure you know your employees, frame the business problem, understand your corporation's risk tolerance and instill ownership in your team's dedicated to new ideas.
If you need more advice or guidance on corporate innovation or intrapreneurship, you can also reach out to RocketSpace's Corporate Innovation Services team. We've helped over 100 global brands create innovation strategies, which often includes intrapreneurship, with a focus on tapping into the global tech startup ecosystem.
Want to stay in the loop for future blog posts? Subscribe to our Corporate Innovation Blog!