Fostering Intrapreneurship Through Culture and Structures

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Fostering Intrapreneurship Through Culture and Structures

You’ve likely heard the term entrepreneur before, but have you heard of an intrapreneur? Did you know you just might be one?

An intrapreneur is an internal entrepreneur. In the United States, there are about 25M entrepreneurs starting and running businesses, leaving 90 percent of the workforce working within a company.

So if you’re one of those driven employees, or if you’re a leader looking to spark innovation and drive in your employees, how can you become more entrepreneurial within a larger organization? As a former intrapreneur turned entrepreneur, here are the two keys - culture & structure / process.

  1. Build a culture that embraces and explores failure.

You may have heard the saying “Disrupt, or be disrupted.” And that is key. As reducing risk is a major part of what companies do, embracing failure can seem very scary to a leader within an organization. In the short run, it is easier to become more efficient, make it faster, cheaper or higher quality–you may not believe you have room for failure and mistakes. But the reality is, most long-running companies have actually changed what they do along the way. And it’s likely due to a failure of some kind. For example, 3M started out making abrasives, but now make flat sticky things like scotch tape and post-it notes.

Start by sharing a failure you made and why it was considered to be one. When sharing your failure story, give context to the failure and frame it as a learning experience. Then encourage others to do so, perhaps start by sharing a failure from when they were young, in school or early in career. This may take a few tries as people are naturally averse to share failures but with time it will become normal.

With failure, comes experimentation. Think about the scientific method–the very thing scientists use when they conduct experiments. A true experiment is when you don’t know the result that may occur, which by definition means it could fail and not give the result you hope for.

Think of a problem your customers have and develop several questions that may lead you to a solution. Then for each question, write it in a way that can be answered in yes or no (this is your hypothesis) then develop a small (low cost, quick) experiment. Examples: a small-batch formula tweak, A/B testing an ad, or building a mockup to show customers.

2. Create structure and use tools.

It may seem counterintuitive to use structure and tools to be more creative and entrepreneurial, but it actually helps get things started. You can always dial back the structure once the intrapreneurial spirit starts to kick in. Two structured events I’ve found which foster intrapreneurship are hackathons and pitch sessions (think Shark Tank).

With a hackathon, the key is a multidisciplinary team, a time crunch and prizes. Other best practices include:

  • Plan for some mini training in advance on techniques such as the scientific method, customer personas / job-to-be done and prototyping.

  • Invite suppliers and customers to join the multi-disciplinary teams.

  • Select 1-3 customer problems to serve as “challenges” the teams can work on. Teams should be encouraged to develop whatever they want–the results may surprise you!

  • Plan for two full days (e.g. Wednesday afternoon start to Friday afternoon pitches/prizes) including bringing in food. Sleep is important so no need to encourage all-nighters.

  • When teams present, encourage the whole office to join the audience. They can cheer, be inspired and may come away with new ideas for their own work.

  • Have prizes. Including 1st, 2nd, 3rd place awards plus others (like most helpful participant, biggest ROI multiplier) to embrace the spirit of the event.

Running a pitch session at your company is another way to bring forth different ideas to problems you have. Like hackathons, you could have specific challenges or keep it open. Employees submit a one-pager about their idea and then some are selected to present a 5-minute pitch to a panel of judges. Ideas selected are given time from their normal day-to-day job to work on the idea plus some budget to put towards developing it. As the idea progresses and meets set milestones, they can apply for additional “rounds of funding” internally for time and resources.

Having fun as an entrepreneur, building new things, solving challenges creatively and seeing results isn’t limited to those starting their own companies. As an intrapreneur with a little bit of structure, tools and the right culture, you can achieve those same results and with a less risk and a deeper-pocketed safety net.

This piece was originally published as a SparkVision guest blog on May 16, 2018.