How to Spot and Nurture Your Intrapreneurs

Businesses are like people. They grow, they change, they spin-off into bigger spaces and they mature. When small companies become huge companies, they adopt a different attitude to risk and often take much longer to innovate and make decisions. These changes may range from subtle to extreme, but they come naturally with corporate maturity.

Ashoka Intrapreneur by Wil Kristin, Flikr

In the beginning, the shots are called by founders and entrepreneurs, with their eyes glued to immediacy and the opportunity. Over time, decisions are taken on by more cautious types, who see more merit in process and risk management. Even the Virgin Group, known for reflecting the free-wheeling style of its CEO, Richard Branson, now consists of over 400 companies and an extensive hierarchy of managers. Once that level of complexity enters into the equation, many companies unintentionally stifle innovation under a blanket of administration.

For entrepreneurial types, this increase in red-tape and bureaucracy can be unbearable. Those who need a more experimental, opportunistic environment may choose to leave and start their own companies. But not everyone has sufficient appetite for independence. Some prefer to have the security of a regular paycheck and the resources of a large organization behind them.

These people, if given the chance, become the rare breed known as intrapreneurs. These few are the entrepreneurial employees, working within a larger organization, who can’t help looking for new and better ways of doing things. They see the opportunity in the day-to-day challenges and in the shifting market dynamics. As one of the most effective antidotes to complacency, they are an invaluable resource. If ignored, they will become a flight risk or worse: a silent source of discord.

Identifying Intrapreneurs

Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai, of the Harvard Business Review[1], examined a 5,000 person company, identifying 250 natural innovators and 25 bona fide intrapreneurs. Among those studied, they found the following common characteristics:

  1. Natural Incubator of Ideas: At a company of any size, decisions regarding the allocation of finite resources are based on the best business case. The intrapreneurs in the study made a practice of testing and validating their ideas first, as far as possible, before presenting their business cases. As a result, their ideas were already incubated and more developed, providing a better sense of their potential for success.
  2. Always Learning, Always Curious: Humans are creatures of habit. We rely on habit to add structure to a chaotic world. Sometimes, we maintain a habit long after its usefulness has expired. In fact, we often do things the way they’ve always been done, without even knowing why they’re done that way! Unlike most humans, an intrapreneur questions the reason for a particular habit or policy. Continually asking why? (and why not?), the intrapreneur won’t settle for “good enough” or “we’ve always done it that way.”
  3. Money Isn’t The Main Motivation: Like everyone else, intrapreneurs want to be rewarded well for what they do. Intrapreneurs, however, are even more highly motivated by the ability to make positive change. They innovate, disrupt and strive for change because they are wired that way. Chances are, they have a history of initiating change with previous employers, which may surface as either a negative or a positive comment during a reference check, depending on whether former employers were mired in risk avoidance and red-tape or focused on innovation.
  4. Mistake Is Not A Dirty Word: Mistakes happen. Rather than seeing a mistake as failure, the intrapreneur takes the new information learned from a mistake and uses it to fuel the next big success.

Nurturing Intrepreneurs

If you are interested in tapping into the potential of your intrapreneurs to foster innovation in your organization, here are 5 things you need to do.

  1. Acknowledge that complacency is the enemy and outlaw the phrase “we’ve always done it that way.” Ask yourself whether your organization is open-minded enough to handle some creative disruption.
  2. Using the characteristics listed above, identify your intrapreneurs. (Hint: they may be filed under “troublemaker.”)
  3. Let them know that their ideas are welcome. Engage them in the process of finding new and better ways to do things and identifying new business opportunities.
  4. Step up and resource the best of their ideas. Give them a chance to flex their innovation muscles.
  5. Forgive them their mistakes: within reason, give them the latitude to make them, learn, move on and try something new. As Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Intrapreneurs, much like their better known counterparts—the entrepreneurs of the world, are driven by the need to create something new and better. Intrapreneurs simply prefer to do so within the structure of an existing organization. An enlightened employer recognizes the potential this creative drive brings to the table and nurtures intrapreneurs to harness their potential for innovation, rather than watching that potential walk out the door.


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