In 1996 Michael Porter described strategy as leveraging the resources of an institution to maintain a “unique competency”. Corporations have interpreted this in different ways since then: leveraging capital to launch new products, investing in new markets, hiring more people etc… However, it is my belief that if organisations can unlock ways of truly leveraging all of the talent in their organisation, they can find resource efficient ways to continually build on existing and create new ‘unique competencies’ which will free up capital to be spent elsewhere.

Intrapreneurs, and intrapreneurship methodology can help companies to do this. (An intrapreneur being an individual who acts like an entrepreneur inside an existing company to create, develop and deliver new business ideas from Gmail, to the playstation to the post-it note).

I have previously written about the business case for (social) intrapreneurship, however I now believe we can think bigger. I see intrapreneurship as a vehicle to drive wider corporate transformation; maybe even THE vehicle to drive corporate transformation. It is something tangible, a methodology to follow, it isn’t just another away day where you get to play around with a few robots but don’t actually get to take anything tangible back as a “how to”. “Innovation” tends to provide more questions “intrapreneurship” is the answer (in my humble opinion).

Let us think about this another way…We are often told that to innovate we need to “think outside the box”, however, I think that in many cases this misses the point that “the box” itself might be the problem. Intrapreneurs need to think inside the box i.e. truly understand the organisational context they are in, internal processes, politics etc… doing this will allow them to change “the box”.

Historically established organisations have structured innovation like this:

id – The company sets up a small team responsible for ideation and the delivery of new ideas. The output of innovation is limited by the size of this team and the only real option to scale is to spend money to increase the size of this team. You can have the greatest minds in the world in a team but the number of people in it does tend to limit output.

Then there was a move to this paradigm:

Id – Crowdsourced ideation; the company goes out to the wider employee base for ideas, however, delivery is still limited by the size of the delivery function. The output of innovation is still, therefore, limited but output may be of higher quality given the volume of ideas suggested. The scaling of output is again limited by the size of the team and can only really be expanded by expanding the size of the team.

What embedding a culture of intrapreneurship allows you to do is this:

IDe – Crowdsourced innovation; train your employee base to not only craft new ideas, but also to deliver them to market. The existing innovation team offers expert oversight and advice. This model vastly increases the innovation output potential and increases employee engagement at the same time. In fact this model can bolt on neatly to existing talent management practises and enhance them.

I call this the “IDe” model of innovation transition and it turns maths in your favour. Having 10,000 individuals who are able to create and develop new products vs 100 is vastly more resource efficient. This is crowdsourced, people-focused innovation. Welcome to your new way of innovating!

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Figure 1 – the “IDe” Model (Source: Heard, 2019)

In essence, this paradigm shift is simple; requiring a degree of mindset unlocking and a training programme based on ‘entrepreneurial’ skills. Doing this in the right way, however, to truly embed a culture of intrapreneurship, and therefore a culture of innovation, isn’t easy. It requires a degree of expertise. Intrapreneurship isn’t really something you can learn from a book (I say this even though I have published one on the topic…) but rather something which must be learned from experience…or from those who are experienced in it. Many organisations I speak to often feel they already support their intrapreneurs…and to some extent they do, however, the problem with many existing models is they are not built with the intrapreneur in mind.

There is a tendency to become distracted by ‘innovation’ rather than refining what processes and competencies are already in existence and this can actually inhibit innovation (See Seelos & Mair, 2012 for a great discussion of this). In short innovation, and intrapreneurship, must be seen as a process and not an outcome. Using my experiences interacting with 1000s of (social) intrapreneurs at corporate organisations around the world it has become clear that a “multidirectional” approach to embedding intrapreneurship in an organisation is required. This is achievable by delivering targeted workshops, mentoring, training, consulting and support at all levels of an organisation in tandem and in a coordinated manner. 

It is my personal belief that this is the best way to unfreeze the ‘permafrost’ and allow cultural transformation by strategic diffusion, therefore allowing organisations, and their employees, to truly reach their innovation potential.

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Figure 2 – Corporate Transformation by strategic diffusion. (Source: Heard,2019)

Dark blue circles = individuals bought into a change programme and or/ intrapreneurs and intrapreneurship advocates

For a long time, I thought that entrepreneurship was a harder journey to embark upon than intrapreneurship; however, I no longer believe this is the case – they are equally difficult in their own right. I read an interesting analogy of this recently: entrepreneurship is like building a new house (often on a new build estate – let’s call it Silicon Valley) whereas intrapreneurship is like coming home to find someone you don’t know redeveloping your house. It is a tricky model to embed but the benefits of doing so are huge.

Think inside the box. You don’t even need to hire the decorators, your intrapreneurs are already in residence – waiting to be found.