Driving Innovation: The Value of Intrapreneurship

Thinking like an entrepreneur within your business

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

George Bernard Shaw

Intrapreneurship came to the fore in the early-to-mid 1980s, first coined by Gifford Pinchot III and later adopted by Howard Edward Haller in his academic research, followed by Steve Jobs who popularised the term when he described the team behind the first Macintosh computer as “what is commonly known now as intrapreneurship. . . a group of people going in essence back to the garage, but in a large company”.

Intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship are closely linked in their aims, activities and ambitions. It’s commonly acknowledged that “entrepreneurship is the act of spearheading a new business or venture, intrapreneurship is the act of spearheading new programs, products, services, innovations, and policies within your organisation.” Each has their own, distinctively different, yet inherently similar risks and opportunities.

Failure is common. Success is difficult to achieve.

Intrapreneurs also have a lot in common with entrepreneurs as individuals in both fields demonstrate many similar characteristics. Typically their alignment is around risk appetite, taking initiative, creative thinking and an ability to solve problems. Most of all they don’t give up and act like owners, with belief, commitment and perseverance.

These attributes are valued by business and recognised as core components to lead innovation and drive change inside an organisation, large or small. Yet the road travelled along both, while different paths, lead to many of the same challenges.

My journey as an intrapreneur has at times been daunting and full of unexpected twists and turns. Strapping yourself in for the ride and learning to accept wherever it takes you is part of the fun and the challenge. That often means you will feel comfortably lost, and actually, that’s a good sign. It means you’re heading in the right direction.

The most interesting journeys always venture into the unknown.

As an intrapreneur, you have to accept it’s less about where you’re headed and more how you get there. That’s difficult to reconcile in a large organisation where certainty is assessed, measured and expected.

While the outcomes of my endeavours were never a certainty I also soon discovered that the size of my ambition mattered far less than the scope of my vision. Working as a team towards a purpose meant our work at InMotion was not just about bigger things, but accomplishing something that had a bigger impact on the business and the communities, societies and cities in which we all live.

As an intrapreneur you have to build and exercise a different muscle group when compared to the typical every day of corporate life. As an intrapreneur you have to learn to build a muscle memory around corporate change. And just like going to the gym, you have to keep exercising that muscle to make it stronger.

At InMotion I trained my thinking to constantly evaluate new opportunities for corporate transformation and an understanding of how to implement change. Where possible I avoided conforming to the way things had always been done in industry and the business.

As a corporate start-up founder I’ve experienced a unique and uncommon journey in corporate life.

The creation of a separate business inside the confines of a large corporation was no easy challenge as it requires you to fundamentally challenge the appetite of a large corporate for managing risk and maintaining control.

Overcoming that hurdle is only possible if you focus on learning and applying yourself to something that you feel passionate about, that you feel vested in from the start, where you solve every problem along the way.

My journey has many similarities but also some key differences to a true start-up founder. As an intrapreneur, I recognise I was fortunate to have resources and access to certain capabilities that many founders don’t have.

However, I still had to convince the company to invest: to believe in me, based on a compelling vision and a clear business opportunity. Inside a corporate organisation “people, potential and product” still matter as they do for any investor. Perhaps for a corporate, there’s also a need for profit in the mix too, which external investors might not place so highly at an early stage.

I simultaneously had the advantage and disadvantage of a ‘captive investor’. It meant I encountered constraints and some unique challenges that most startup founders don’t face. That’s the virtue of corporate innovation and intrapreneurship: doing something that’s never been done before, inside an organisation that is incomparable to any other, and the learning you generate along the way acting as the waypoints of your journey.

I firmly believe intrapreneurship is the future of the corporate world, as continued waves of innovation create the environment and opportunity to enable change-makers to have an impact on their organisations. The future belongs to individuals and companies who embrace the spirit of intrapreneurship and allow it to flourish.

Most have the capacity for intrapreneurship if they are given the chance and opportunity. Many don’t know where to start, and there are even fewer learnings from those who have been through the journey of being an intrapreneur. In the spirit of encouraging intrapreneurship, I share my learnings and insights for becoming an intrapreneur in your organisation.

1. Think and behave like an owner

Carry a desire to make whatever you do work, no matter the challenges. Vest of yourself in the activity, taking accountability for your work, seeking a deeper understanding of the customer to drive successful implementation. Never give up.

2. Look forwards and out, not backwards and in

It’s all too easy inside a corporate to navel gaze, to focus on the incremental and serve short term needs of the business. Have the courage of your convictions and a discipline to always look outside your organisation. Be bold, be brave, and believe.

3. Follow your own path

Most corporates work in an industry or sector silo. It’s all too easy to focus on the incumbent competition and to ‘follow’ fast or slow. They aren’t always right. They don’t have all the answers, despite the veneer of success they may paint.

4. Define your parallel track

Enable the necessary degrees of freedom to explore, learn and fail. But don’t be an island. Create enough separation to break outside the corporate norms that stifle innovation, but not avoid being disconnected from the entire organisation.

5. Avoid the Emperor’s new clothes

Execution is hard and implementing is the crucial hurdle. You’ll need help but don’t bring in management consultants and avoid listening to people willing to convince you they know best. Instead, have the courage to execute yourself.

6. Establish internal creative tension

You can’t satisfy every stakeholder all of the time. Embrace diversity of opinion, sector and understanding. Accept that alignment will be a by-product not the end goal of your activities. Avoid consensus and dilution of something that could be great.

7. Define the opportunity cost (of not doing what you’re doing)

Demonstrate how not innovating is a risk to the core business. This often doesn’t make for comfortable listening but it’s the only way to get senior executives to take notice. It’s the most powerful argument you have at your disposal.

8. Define successful outcomes from the start

You might not know what success looks like, but orientate everyone towards a goal you want to achieve, even if it changes. Then work backwards to determine the internal building blocks that will help achieve more successful outcomes.

9. Build momentum, early

Success breeds success, no matter how small the win. Show momentum to your board to give you the operating freedom to continue to fail, learn and grow. Identify the low hanging fruit that can provide immediate short term results.

10. Avoid spurious degrees of precision

Don’t measure the output of your activities in the same way as the core business. In your finances avoid a forensic level of understanding of the numbers. Help stakeholders understand what is important to measure and to what level.

11. Measure what matters

Instead, make sure you influence and drive the measurement of your activities on the corporate scorecard. Like all early stage prototypes, it’s important you instrument your activities. Make sure you measure your ideation, your execution and your impact.

12. Don’t use money to solve problems

Be creative. Money doesn’t encourage creative solutions to solving problems. If you truly believe in lean startup as a philosophy then you have to live by lean. Recognise your constraints and work around them, artificially imposed or not.

13. Be obsessed with experimentation

Implement a relentless obsession with experimentation, and the learning you gain from doing so. Test every critical hypothesis, execute customer development, follow the MOM test, and leave your inherent beliefs and prejudices at the door.

14. Recruit former student athletes

On my team, I had a former national junior tennis champ, a rower and a sailor of Olympic standard. They each understand the hard work it took to get to the highest level of their sport. They’ve also tasted and understood failure. That’s a motivator.

15. Celebrate every small milestone

It’s key to generating momentum, especially if shared inside and outside the innovation team. Build on each success finding a way to involve the entire team on a regular and frequent basis. Recognise there are more failures than success.

Johnathan Carrier is Director at RocketSpace & Director, Corporate Innovation (Europe). A leader in mobility, smart transportation & intrapreneurship & a startup advisor & mentor