“The rise of the intrapreneur is driven in part by a restless, younger
workforce eager to make a real impact with their careers.
Fast Company The Rise of The Intrapreneur
The word, “intrapreneur” is iconic for many millennials. They use it as shorthand for the freedom to pursue their own ideas and the chance to make a meaningful difference early in their careers. This is what millennials are demanding. As millennials spread the word, companies are implementing intrapreneuring to recruit and retain the best and the brightest.
The rapid growth of corporate programs in intrapreneuring is also driven by a rapid rise in th strategic importance of internal innovation. Fast Company, in its 2015 article, The Rise of The Intrapreneur, begins with this sentence:
“Never before has there been such a push for employees to take ownership of their own corner of a company.”
Many major companies have run out of large opportunities to cut costs and easy opportunities to expand globally with existing products. Acquisitions only turn out well if you innovate with what you have bought. To remain relevant in a rapidly changing world companies need a high volume of cost effective innovation.
Just as innovation in startups requires entrepreneurs, innovation in big companies requires intrapreneurs. In hundreds of cases, we and other researchers have consistently found that at the root of every successful corporate innovation, there are one or more passionate intrapreneurs. Intrapreneurs have the persistence, courage and cunning to get through the inevitable corporate immune system resistance and turn opportunities into profitable realities.
If you encourage and support intrapreneurs all the way through implementation of their ideas, more intrapreneurs will come out of the woodwork. If you block new ideas, intrapreneurs go into hiding. This frequently happened with “Stage Gate” processes, which became popular in the 90s. At each stage gate a committee decided whether to let the intrapreneurs proceed to the next gate. This created many ways to say "no" and almost no way to say "yes." Since it requires great imagination to understand the value of a really new idea, only mediocre ideas (if any) survived the process. Often the wrong lesson was learned, giving up on internal innovation rather than giving up on a process that looked good on paper, but didn’t work in practice.
What works to support intrapreneurs is a relationship, not a process. The relationship is between an intrapreneurial team and one or more sponsors. The sponsors deeply understand the value of what the intrapreneurs are trying to do and trust the intrapreneurs to make good decisions. They are betting on the people as much as on the ideas. They help the intrapreneurs find resources and guide them around political dangers. They defend them with higher ups and help them to hide when hiding is the best strategy.
An effective intrapreneuring program is a cultural shift. It involves educating both intrapreneurs and potential sponsors on their roles and effective behavior. Because these roles involve trust, not everyone can find a sponsor. That’s OK. A company generates more good ideas in a month than it can implement in a decade. All we can ask for is that a significant number of the better ones succeed.
The key is senior leaders who can recognize the genuine intrapreneurial spirit and recognize projects with potential. If those sponsors exist and the system supports them in trusting and supporting intrapreneurs, intrapreneurs will emerge. Potential intrapreneurs exist in every organization; in most they don’t think it safe to come out.