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Jamie Qiu

By Jamie Qiu

The pandemic has shown that global shocks and crises are very real, and the threat of more isn’t going away. The winning organisations will be those who can innovate and transform — capturing the white-space growth opportunities from this — while simultaneously becoming more resilient to volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) shocks.

But at the same time, innovation investments have seen cuts. According to a recent study, 33% of corporations have reduced innovation budgets. Such moves can be short-sighted, and decreasing innovation investments may mean playing catch-up for years to come.

So how can organisations get the innovation and growth outcomes they need, with fewer resources, while building resilience? Developing a strong culture of intrapreneurship is one way to square the circle — and we’ve seen a growing interest among companies to develop this following the recent crisis.

Intrapreneurship is a tide that lifts all boats

Corporations often have dedicated innovation units; new-venture studios; or ‘skunkworks’, moonshot labs. They explore how to partner with small and high-growth startups, build new propositions themselves, or buy and invest in innovation (often by acquiring IP or taking stakes in startups).

But intrapreneurship isn’t only for these selected few — it’s for everyone — and a vital organisational component in any future proofed company. While innovation teams were the early-adopters of such ways of working and thinking, this mindset is now ‘crossing the chasm’ and is increasingly adopted by the broader organisation.

By having employees think more like founders, ‘business-as-usual’ becomes more innovative and productive — and more resilient organisations are born.

Increasing numbers of our conversations with progressive organisations are about how to make intrapreneurship and intrapreneurial techniques tangible, easy to understand and applicable in practice within the core business — turning ‘fluffy’ entrepreneurial spirit into concrete change.

Successful intrapreneurship

For intrapreneurship to be effective it has to be focused. Among other factors, it’s vital to point intrapreneurs towards a strategically aligned portfolio of opportunity or problem briefs; have a clear pipeline-development process that generates the right ideas and validates them in a lean way (deciding, for example whether to build them in-house or to partner with another company); and have the right set of metrics to quantify value and progress.

But intrapreneurship for the broader organisation — as the tide that lifts all boats — also has important conditions for success. Having helped clients in over 11 industry sectors and supported over 2k intrapreneurs, we’ve seen some of what works and doesn’t. Here are four key lessons we’ve learned:

1.  Intrapreneurship is like tango — it takes two

Applying intrapreneurial approaches and innovation methods requires both leaders and employees to be able to speak the same language to work together. The steps of the ‘tango’ are the tools, methods, language and mindset they both share. Leaders set the direction while providing support and guidance for employees to validate their ideas, incentivising them to think and act intrapreneurially.

Teach both the intrapreneurs and leaders to speak the same language.

When we helped Pentland Brands run an intrapreneurship accelerator to develop new propositions, we taught both the cohort of 60 intrapreneurs and the leaders to how to approach customer discovery, assumptions validation and lean experimentation. Making sure everyone was speaking the same language made them more efficient in collaborating together.

2. Intrapreneurship needs protecting and ring-fencing

Successful intrapreneurial leaders create the space and environment to incentivise creativity and resourcefulness, providing employees with a degree of autonomy and psychological safety to ideate, test and learn.

Reinforce the understanding that failed efforts will always be viewed as crucial learnings.

In practice, this means reinforcing the shared understanding that failed efforts will always be viewed as crucial learnings, as long as there was clarity on how and what was to be validated and learned from it.

Meanwhile, successful intrapreneurial employees play their part by sharing clear requirements for what they need to validate their ideas, often completed as side hustles, helping them get the time and space needed.

Here is where core lean startup methods are useful, for example identifying the riskiest assumptions around a new idea and formulating experiments that gather evidence (data) to validate them in a cheap and easy way. This helps leaders to say yes to putting in more resources or investment as they see the uncertainty decreasing.

3. Intrapreneurship needs the right metrics

Metrics for innovation are different from the metrics you would use for business-as-usual. They must help leaders make balanced decisions about when to kill ideas that won’t work, but also when not to kill promising ideas too soon.

Find ways to give space to projects that build up slowly.

Organisations often have little interest in ideas that won’t make a material financial impact. They tend to set a high bar, even for the early steps, often focused on revenue. But leaders must find ways to give space to projects that build up slowly, and to identify what quick wins they can aim for in the early stages, after an initial injection of limited resources.

When we helped a major global packaging manufacturer look at the initial business case for using machine learning to transform product testing we reviewed the balance between the costs and expected benefits and identified lateral or secondary benefits that hadn’t been previously quantified. This tipped the balance to greenlight the product, and also showed the company what other metrics they should measure outside of revenue.

4. HR is key to effective intrapreneurship

Becoming more resilient and entrepreneurial is a cultural and people-centred change that needs to happen at all levels across the organisation. HR has a key role to play in making this happen.

As we head into a future of work where automation and machine learning will increasingly augment humans and free up more time to focus on other areas of value, it’s crucial to prepare the foundations for a growth-focused, adaptable and resilient workforce that’s fit for the future.

Can you spot the employees who deal well with ambiguity?

Talent leaders should consider how intrapreneurship fits into their talent strategy and how to identify and nurture intrapreneurial skills and mindsets. Can you spot the employees who deal well with ambiguity, lean into co-creation, challenge the status quo with data and evidence, make space for intentional learning and support the successes of others?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, however. Some organisations have seen success by encouraging employees to work on new ideas as side-hustles, even allocating them a fixed amount of time each week (famously Google), while other companies have seen success by having specific programmes.

For intrapreneurship training to be effective it must focus on first-hand experience.

When we helped the UK Civil Service to roll out an innovation training bootcamp as part of a certification system for intrapreneurship, we learned that for intrapreneurship training to be effective it must focus on application and firsthand experience. Employees have to be supported to continually put these skills and methods into practice on real business needs, not hypothetical examples.

That’s why we’ve put together The Intrapreneurship Challenge — a light-touch and free to participate course featuring six lessons for both senior leaders and rising talents, with practical tips and tools to put them into practice.

What next?

The world-leading organisations we’ve worked with have generated sensible innovation outcomes while keeping an eye on cost; developing long-term capabilities to become more resilient in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments.

As opposed to corporate startup accelerators, intrapreneurship programmes see crossfunctional employees on the front line of innovation activities, and encourage them to collaborate with leadership to respond to challenges and opportunities in a leaner way; helping to not only solve real challenges but also build talent, leadership and capability.

Jamie Qiu is the founder and managing partner of Studio Zao.

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