There are Intrapreneurs Among Us

In a world where a single iPhone can replace 25+ devices, and technology moves more rapidly than futurists can predict, it seems frankly irresponsible not to put innovation in the driver seat of car with all the bells and whistles. Mature corporations sacrifice agility in a market where agility is king, lose talent to the gig economy because they simply can’t seem to get the engagement equation right, and lose business to the little guys because they weren’t nimble enough to get there first. It’s time to break up with the past and move boldly into the future.

There are intrapreneurs hiding in every company who are here to help.

They are the few but mighty who effectively navigate corporate bureaucracy and boundaries to create business value in new and creative ways.  They are corporate secret weapons, who can drive innovation from the inside out. Intrapreneurs see an opportunity to solve a problem, offer a service and make an impact , and they go after it. Against corporate odds and metaphorical brick walls they stay positive and driven. They work from within the churning and complicated core of the company , and push change while at the same time keeping momentum and focus on economic drivers .  These are the employees that have plans for their dreams, unparalleled commitment, and are confident and resilient with political savvy and immense influencing skills.  They know that every setback is a new opportunity. Intrapreneurs can help mature, complex, and generally stagnant companies get to new levels of success, faster.

Intrapreneurs are not the same as entrepreneurs. Sir Richard Branson , knighted for his contributions to entrepreneurship, describes it best:

“Many millions of people proudly claim the title ‘entrepreneur.’ On the other hand, a title that hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of attention it deserves is entrepreneur’s little brother, ‘intrapreneur:’ an employee who is given freedom and financial support to create new products, services and systems, who does not have to follow the company’s usual routines or protocols.’ While it’s true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it under way, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development.”

Intrapreneurs thrive despite constraints, instead of focusing on perfection and limitations, they laser focus their energies at bringing together internal resources, networks, and capabilities to accelerate work and drive action. They pressure test ideas and navigate difficult terrains to deliver value quickly, and then also consistently. They work against long-lived internal mindsets about ‘how things have always been done’, which is inherently risky and also necessary. They find success by pushing ever so firmly against these confines until they become broader, less tight. Loosening constraints through demonstrated and credible success is their winning strategy .

We live in a world where robots may take our jobs and niche players are stealing daily bread from long-established businesses. We live in a world where 52% of the Fortune 500 firms since 2000 are gone according to Ray Wang from Constellation Research. Innovation is the difference between good, great, or dead for most mature and lumbering companies today. Corporations struggle getting the right talent, resources and ideas all lined up at the same time. This 2013 HBR blog written by Beth Altringer may have in captured it best when a CEO she interviewed said the following:

“There are lots of things that can be done in large organizations but simply aren’t because nobody has the time or resources… to actually get something going in a large organization, you need the ideas and you need the people who believe in them, but the people who are actually capable of these things are the good ones, and they are already stretched by their work in the corporate environment…. It [becomes] impossible for them to pull it off.”

Companies just aren’t getting it right, and employees are leaving cushy corporate jobs to start their own businesses at increasing rates. The 2015 Freelancing in America report indicates that “nearly one in three working Americans is an independent worker. That’s almost 54 million people – and growing” and “60% of them made the jump by choice”. Employees are checking their corporate ID badge at the gate to have a greater degree of flexibility and control over their work. Letting key talent slide out the door can be crushing for a business.  Let’s take the example of Steve Wozniak. Steve offered the original Apple computer designs to his then employer Hewlett-Packard on 5 separate occasions, and was rejected each time. Faced with rejection, he didn’t give up, he left.

Intrapreneurs aren’t the type that just give up. Nope. They go start their own gig, they invent things like the Apple computer and go change the world. This begs an extra question, could deliberately dedicating, and vigorously supporting the space and time for intrapreneurship be the antidote to the gig economy? Could companies protect valuable talent from disappearing into the great gig world by simply allowing them to focus almost predominately on doing what they do best, when they want, where they want? Could offering internal support for intraprenuer stop the bleed?

We better get this right, all of us.

Intrapreneurs must have an internal coalition of support that allows them the space and time to succeed. This is truly a team effort:

  • HR professionals can help the business find these employees.
  • Managers can help overcomes internal barriers and clear obstacles that could stamp out passion.
  • Intrapreneuring employees can choose to ignore the noise and approach their organization with a strong business plan and proposition.
  • Organizations can plan for the factors that will make or break success: Do we have the right behavioral values to support this?  Do we have a culture that encourages people to raise their hands, voices and heads to the challenge of creating new value and charting new territory? Do we have the right organizational structure and management to allow it to happen? Do we have the right reward systems to acknowledge it in times of success and failure?

Successful organization must make sure that intrapreneurs aren’t cut down by the rest of the organization simply because they are standing too far out in front of the crowd.

Companies have long rethought how they embed innovation, intrapreneurship, and failing forward into their cultures. This is not new. However, the stark reality is that most of these attempts simply fail in the end. There are many reasons for this, including lack of (right) resources to tackle the problem, a missing tie between innovation and business strategy, a culture that hasn’t yet replaced the fear of failure with the joy of experimental learning, or simply just a lack of results.    As companies change and grow so to must their approach to innovation. Intrapreneurship is not about innovation for innovation sake, it is about improved business economics and measurable impact, it is for the business.

This could be what standard issue innovation teams are missing. Innovation labs, micro-teams, incubators, and initiatives are often held out and away from the business ( or even just parceled out to consulting firms) . They are generally managed as special assignment. Kept outside of reachable distance as a means of preventing the routine day-to-day from encroaching into the manufactured space of innovation. The problem is, this doesn’t help bring the cycle and spirit of innovation into the normal rhythm of the business. We will know we have truly sparked an intrapreneurial fire inside the organization when we bring the business of innovation, back into the business.

When charting our way through this new world of work and innovation we would be wise to look through the lens of Thomas Edison who famously said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


Bianca E. McCann, MHRIR

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Photo Credit: Daniel :Stright Off the Wall




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