The Dreamers Who Do: How Leaders Can Inspire Intrapreneurship

The businesses currently searching for new and innovative ways to expand and remain relevant in times of change are the businesses that will survive. The others – those that focus on short-term profit and doubling down on systems they already know work – will soon be gone.

That’s not a prediction. It’s fact. Of the companies that made the Fortune 500 in 1955, 88% no longer exist, whether due to acquisition or, more likely, either bankruptcy or irrelevancy. Back then, the average company lifespan was 55 years. Today, it’s around 19 years, and the number continues to drop in a landscape over-saturated with startups (around 90% of which fail) and facing unprecedented changes in the workforce.

Those that thrive in the face of such challenge do so because they have the right mindset, the right culture, to overcome it. Increasingly, one of the key elements in the culture of a booming business is proving to be the concept of 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 an entrepreneur starts a business with a particular goal, intrapreneurs have a broader vision. They look beyond the business, to address gaps or shifts in the market, in order to find ways to address them from within the context of the company they work for. Intrapreneurs don’t just want a job; they want to make a difference.

Perhaps the best known example of intrapreneurship is Google’s famous ‘20% time’, which allowed Google employees to spend 20% of their working week focusing on something outside of their immediate duties. At least, that’s how the story goes. Back in 2015, 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 20% time is said to have lead to such defining Google services as AdSense and Gmail, it is not intrapreneurship. It’s simply an expectation.

That’s fine if you’re a company like Google, a company that naturally attracts the very best. But what if you don’t have that kind of clout? Here are some tips 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 their first call to action. Realising this, Yannick Khayati of Belgium’s Board of Innovation ran a company-wide experiment to discover who had what it takes. He put up mysterious flyers directing employees to an internal website, made it purposefully difficult for them to follow links etc. to find out who had the drive and skills to take on a “hazardous journey” that they knew only the vaguest details about.

“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 certain 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. Companies often fear change, or giving up control. Too bad. “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’ 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. When the brand made it big, it was perceived as a break from the norm. This is where that mentality started.

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 management lend their support. Worse than the failure is the intrapreneur’s fear that they will not get a second chance.

Prove them wrong. Help them analyse where they went wrong, and encourage them to try something different when they’re ready. 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 not to 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 that will allow your business to survive.

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