Good Thinking

How It Works

The key is, you and your managers must wholeheartedly accept that employees should be allowed to create. Neal Thornberry, faculty director of the School of Executive Education at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has dealt with companies that entered Babson's corporate entrepreneurship program but never really seemed to be on board. "We run into those barriers every time," he says. "Let's [take] equity [compensation]. We ask senior management, 'Are you willing to change the way you pay people?' And if they say no, we say, 'OK, don't do this program anymore, because you're not serious.'" An additional sign that the program might not work, says Thornberry, is if the CFO--not the most willing to invest in anything risky--is overseeing the program's finances. Thornberry suggests appointing outsiders, like venture capitalists, to your board to review your innovation efforts.

What corporate entrepreneurship consultants stress are the benefits of discovering new talent and the likelihood that if innovative employees are rewarded properly, they'll stay with the company rather than resign to start their own businesses. "Most of the people with the ideas prefer to stay inside because you have a heck of a brand," says Thornberry. "[These people] probably already have a pool of talent across the organization if they can get access to it--and a paycheck every week. Not everybody's cut out for the start-up entrepreneurship role."

The thing is, it's hard to tell who has the ability to come up with fresh ideas, and the dedication to follow through, without giving everyone a go. When Thornberry taught corporate entrepreneurship at electrical engineering and electronics company Siemens eight years ago, he was taken aback when the same fiftysomething engineer who demanded he be told exactly how to give a presentation (flip chart or overhead--weighty stuff) went on to develop a successful business within the company, while two Stanford MBAs were the first to quit the program for fear it would throw them off their career paths. Working with food company Mott's, which found innovators via a competitive application, Thornberry saw a secretary beat out a senior vice president. "You never know who could be entrepreneurial unless they're put in a situation where it might bud," he says.

"Particularly with the fall of dotcoms, there are a lot of folks with entrepreneurial tendencies who are now in the marketplace."

The first step in building an innovation program, says Leifer, is understanding that entrepreneurial minds are valuable--even vital--to your company's success. Then you need to designate a person (or group) to whom employees can turn with new ideas. "If you identify people tasked with seeking out new ideas," says Leifer, "there's a greater chance of those ideas emerging and being supported and nurtured."

If you sense a lack of entrepreneurial thought within your company, Leifer suggests looking outside. "Particularly with the fall of the dotcoms, there are a lot of folks with entrepreneurial tendencies who are now in the marketplace," he says.

You'll be surprised by not only how re-energized your employees are once they're granted entrepreneurial responsibilites, but also the skills they'll learn. "All of a sudden the five- or 10-person team [of] programmers or technical engineers has to do sales and marketing [to get their ideas funded internally], deal with finances and do human resources work," says Perry. "They're no longer just individual contributors, but with new management and business skills, they become candidates for leadership roles outside their specialty area."

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This article was originally published in the July 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Good Thinking.

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