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'Intrapreneurs' Can't Change Their Industry Inside Drab Office Walls

'Intrapreneurs' Can't Change Their Industry Inside Drab Office Walls
Image credit: Wolfgang Lonien | Flickr

What began in a garage in Silicon Valley 40 years ago has spawned a supernova of technology development and innovation that continues to lead the world. Still driving real estate prices and pulling talent into the Bay Area decades later, this frenzied startup culture has forced legacy companies to face the facts: disrupt -- or disappear.

But how legacy companies are disrupting doesn’t make headlines as often as their neighboring startups do. What does it really take for intrapreneurs, the creative disrupters within large organizations, to challenge the status quo? And how can company leadership fuel innovation when most intrapreneurs are still being asked to change their industry inside drab office walls?

Related: Millennials: Death to the Cubicle!

Culture and innovation depend on great spaces.

In his 2010 TED talk, best-selling author Steven Johnson told of a man who videotaped scientists to determine where their best ideas happened. In reviewing the film, he discovered that, "Almost all the most important breakthrough ideas did not happen alone in the lab in front of a microscope. They happened at the conference table at the weekly lab meeting when everyone got together.” We believe this kind of fluid networking, where silos collapse and ideas flow freely, is crucial to fostering startup culture and fueling innovation.

Recently, my company researched the spaces, cultures and leadership trends of entrepreneurs in emerging businesses and of intrapreneurs in global companies. We’ve discovered that intrapreneurs often approach space with the mindset of a startup -- they shirk the norms and pirate their way to something better. Here’s how you can do the same:

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  • Leverage space: Like founders, intrapreneurs want their office space to match their passion and pace. To activate a sense of startup culture, consider adding gathering spaces and lounge settings to encourage idea sharing. A 2014 Harris Poll survey conducted for turnstone revealed that 34 percent of Gen Y prefer lounge settings to get work done. To attract the brightest talent and keep your existing team engaged, consider offering standing height desks, walk stations and lounge seating. Allow your people to work in ways that feel authentic to them.

  • Offer autonomy: Our ongoing informal field study of large organizations shows that intrapreneurs want autonomy to pursue weird ideas, invent new solutions, hire talent, fire people not moving the team forward, fail fast and fail smart, spend freely and ship a product. Giving innovative team leaders the freedom to chase creativity without the constraints of traditional company projects increases the likelihood of disruption -- and decreases the likelihood that they’ll leave to go work at a startup.

  • Enable innovation: Because trust is a pillar for creativity and innovation, design spaces to help workplace relationships to flourish. Planning events to encourage natural interactions and a free exchange of ideas is just one way to help your intrapreneurs connect the dots on new projects without inadvertently forcing them off-site to a coffee shop, restaurant or bar. Instead, find a way to help create those third places on campus to allow people to get away without going away.

  • Promote agility: Provide intrapreneurs with whiteboards, post-it notes and places to sketch concepts and realize prototypes. Advocate for your team by removing organizational red tape and championing make-it-work moments to keep projects moving ahead with urgency.

  • Embrace authenticity: Encourage intrapreneurs to put their passions and personalities on display with artwork, souvenirs, personal objects and photos that inspire them. Include elements that truly reflect the team by enlisting the help of an interior designer to curate and customize a physical environment with rich materiality, diverse textures and 3D printed objects or prototypes.

  • Dedicate space: Give intrapreneurs a dedicated space to innovate and reinvent without the fear of disrupting daily business. Because intrapreneurs need to keep intellectual property safe, consider moving them off-site to a place unfettered by organizational structure. If your team remains on-site, designate part of your building that is physically distant from customers and other distractions. And, if possible, find a way to make the space decidedly different. Let their work -- and their space --serve as a beacon of disruptive thinking to the rest of the company.

Related: Designing a Better Office Space