Only 10% of Businesses Last 20+ Years. Here’s How to Make Sure Yours is One of the Them.

Businesses that actively sort for new and innovative ways to expand and remain relevant are businesses that survive. The others? Those that focus on short-term profit and are too ignorant to step out of their comfort zones? They’re on the highway to irrelevancy.

That’s not a prediction. It’s fact. Of the companies that made the Fortune 500 in 1955, only 12% remain. The other 88% have gone bankrupt, been acquired, or made redundant by more modern and agile competitors.

At the time, the average company lifespan was 55 years, and even with their money and influence, most of those that appeared on the Fortune 500 didn’t last that long following their inclusion on the list.

Today, lifespans are down to 19 years, and the number continues to drop in a landscape over-saturated with startups (around 90% of which fail) and unprecedented change within the workforce.

While the challenges remain much the same for businesses striving for longevity now as in the past, it is a relatively new concept which is proving a determining factor. A concept that calls on organisations to look within for the ideas that will reinvent their success and guide them into the future.

That concept is intrapreneurship.

Intrapreneurs were first defined by US entrepreneur Gifford Pinchot III in 1984 as “dreamers who do. Those who take hands-on responsibility for creating innovation of any kind, within a business”.

While entrepreneurs start businesses, intrapreneurs work within them like any other employee. The difference is they don’t just take the job because they’re looking for work. They take it because they want to make a difference.

An intrapreneur looks beyond the immediate scope of their daily tasks for gaps or shifts in a market, then propose means through which to meet the needs these changes inspire through the organisation they work for. This keeps companies on the bleeding edge, while taking stress off leadership teams that are generally expected to come up with such ideas by themselves.

This might remind you of Google’s famous 20% time, which called on Google employees to spend 20% of their working week focusing on something outside of their immediate duties. At least, that’s how it was described by outsiders until 2015, when Yahoo CEO and former Googler Marissa Mayer revealed the truth“I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120% time”. 

While the 20% time policy is said to have resulted in major Google services such as AdSense and Gmail, it’s not intrapreneurship. It’s overtime.

True intrapreneurship is the result of company culture that encourages the sharing and exploration of ideas as part of each employee’s daily activity. And as a leader, it’s up to you to foster it.

Here are a few tips on how to do just that from the experts:

Search Within

Intrapreneurship is a discipline that dwells in a person, and akin to many entrepreneurs, a great deal of intrapreneurs don’t realise they are one until they receive a call to action.

In 2015, Yannick Khayati of intrapreneurship consultancy firm Board of Innovation ran an experiment for one of his clients to determine who, in their company, would be the best fit to lead a major project.

Khayati put up mysterious flyers asking employees to volunteer for a “hazardous journey” with “big responsibilities and a high chance of failure”. Those that applied weren’t exactly sure what they were in for, but the fact they applied regardless made it easier for the company to narrow down their options. Relatively easier, at least.

“Finding a qualified intrapreneur with the right fit for a corporate innovation project is very hard – and even that is an understatement,” says Khayati. The process of narrowing down the right person for the job took nearly four months, but it’s unlikely that a similar procedure conducted through traditional recruiting means would have yielded such promising results.

Build Them Up…Then Get Out of the Way

It’s not unusual to hear of companies like Fraunhofer Venture offering financial reward for employees who bring their ideas to management. While money is a great motivator, intrapreneurs are ultimately about the work. They want to bring their idea to life. That’s why Fraunhofer now run an internal accelerator program called FraunhoferDays. 3M, a company whose history with intrapreneurship dates back to the invention of the post-it note, do the same via their Bootlegging Policy.

Then they get out of the way.

Leaders who fear change, or relinquishing control of projects, serve only to doom experimental projects to failure. “In order to succeed, intrapreneurs must sometimes work without complying with rules. Take me for example, I do not break the rules – I bend them,” says FraunhoferDays’s Dr. Thorsten Lambertus.

This rebellious nature was perhaps best embodied by Steve Jobs, and his 20 Apple colleagues, when they broke from the company’s control to build the first Macintosh. It might not have been what the people upstairs wanted, but it was ultimately what they needed.

Be Ready to Accept Failure

Intrapreneurship comes with huge rewards, but also huge risks. Leaders need to remember that, and prepare accordingly. If an idea fails to get off the ground, or stalls at an important time, it’s critical that leaders are ready to step in to lend support.

Help them analyse what went wrong, and encourage them to try something different when they’re ready. The worst thing to an intrapreneur is the fear that one failure means they’ll never be given the opportunity to try again. Prove them wrong to keep them working at their best.

Doing so can provide enormous benefits – Deloitte’s Five Insights Into Intrepreneurship highlighted six important factors that intrapreneurship brings to a company:

  1. Enables and encourages a stream of constant innovation.
  2. Hones talent.
  3. Provides companies with a competitive advantage.
  4. Boosts company culture.
  5. Grows the bottom line.
  6. Speeds up the development cycle of products.

Ultimately, the only wrong way to encourage intrapreneurship in your business is to not encourage it. By establishing structures, fostering talent, providing leadership, and motivating your staff, you will establish a breeding ground upon which you will gain the competitive edge.

If you want to thrive, it’s your only option.

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