How to Cultivate a Culture of Intrapreneurship Here's how leaders can help raise motivated, proactive intrapreneurs.
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At my first job, while I was impressed by the advanced equipment and technology, I was rather disappointed by the need for more openness to new ideas. My manager rejected all the new ideas I proposed for our projects. The pain of ideas getting killed resonated with a couple of other friends. So, we decided to start our own company where we could put our ideas into action.
Of course, not all our ideas were successful, but that's the risk of entrepreneurship, and we are happy that we had the chance to try them. Today, our organization is a strong team of over 300 people who are encouraged and motivated to experiment and share ideas. Moreover, the intrapreneurs within these 300 people have grown professionally and fueled the company's overall growth.
The opportunities to ideate, test and scale products by our intrapreneurs have allowed our organization to launch vital new products and services. In addition, our labs' products have allowed us to serve clients and help them intuitively, accurately and efficiently make critical decisions.
That's the power of intrapreneurship — everyone wins when employees receive the freedom and support to innovate and create.
The startup dreams
The fancy word — "startup." Starting up is never easy.
Many employees at every organization once dreamed of starting their own company. However, upon looking at the responsibilities on their shoulders, such employees decide against taking such a risk. But with the right mentorship and support system, they can carve out a laudable path of entrepreneurship as intrapreneurs.
American business software company, Intuit, encourages its employees to create prototypes to test their hypotheses. Their "unit of one" approach for testing and scaling ideas promotes constant innovation. Essentially, Intuit ensures that employees test their hypothesis with just one customer, ideally someone best served by it. For example, suppose the target persona finds the MVP useful and recommends it. In that case, the hypothesis can scale to a larger cohort to observe a bigger dataset.
In a piece by Harvard Business Review on intrapreneurship at Intuit, this approach was cited as an example that helped the business launch "Shop Owner," a mobile application, in Bengaluru, India.
Repeat interactions with everyday customers — rural-area store clerks — allowed one Intuit employee to recognize that each sale was kept in the shop owner's "memory" due to a lack of on-site computers or cash registers with integrated accounting features.
The answer? Since the target audience predominantly used smartphones, the team built a simple application that bundled point-of-sale accounting, inventory management and printed receipts.
The prototype was created, tested and approved for scaling — within seven days!
Triumphant outcomes are routinely tagged as "overnight success," whether from innovation or intrapreneurship programs. Yet, the truth could not be further away from this adopted belief.
Building a healthy culture that celebrates intrapreneurship requires a mix of systems, tools and hard work. I believe that the ball starts rolling right from the leadership. Organizations can take cues from several studies, research papers and working models on better cultivating a culture of intrapreneurship.
Neil Fogarty, an instructor of Entrepreneurship in the Dept. of Management & Organization in the Smeal College of Business at PSU, offers a framework for creating a supportive environment for raising entrepreneurs. Leaders may say, "I get it, but," Fogarty replies, "Here is how you can go about it."
The framework helps switch employee thinking from a cost-center perspective to one of personal profit-center. As a result, leaders can help raise motivated, proactive intrapreneurs and also understand how to tackle budgetary constraints, propensity to take risks and other crucial commitments.
It's worth taking a deep dive into this framework; meanwhile, here is how we go about intrapreneurship at our company.
How do we raise intrapreneurs?
In my two decades of work experience, I have participated in countless discussions — brainstorming sessions, OKR feedback, policy debates, product quality reviews, etc.
Most of us love listening to what we would like to hear; however, we encourage the daring minority — intrapreneurs — to challenge the status quo.
In my experience, it is crucial to establish a structure where people can fearlessly submit their ideas and suggestions. Moreover, it is essential to provide them with the right ecosystem to execute those ideas. Of course, not every idea would be successful, but the "biggest risk is not taking any risk," as Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, says.
Here are three prominent practices we follow to encourage intrapreneurship culture:
The sales targets are not just set for the sales team. The operations team needs to walk hand-in-hand in the following ways:
Identifying the gaps at the client end to open more business opportunities
Suggesting market gaps where the company can position itself strategically to bring more business
Expanding teams by strategic and thoughtful hiring
Creating systems and processes for efficient and productive work
Honing people skills to effectively manage teams
This way, the VPs, managers and team leads run small companies as a part of the big company. In addition, we give intrapreneurs hands-on mentorship in the form of an in-house program called "altMBA."
In-house MBA programs:
Creating leaders at every level of the organization chart — especially those who staunchly believe in innovation — requires workplace training.
While traditional classroom settings can offer many theoretical insights, practical altMBA workshops have helped employees provide efficient feedback, become better communicators, apply "first principles thinking" and learn how to ask better questions.
At our organization, we conduct an annual hackathon called "make-a-thon." This event helps us create and support a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization.
"Make-a-thon" takes place over two days, where people create teams to build a minimal viable product (MVP). Then, at the close of the event, teams pitch their prototype.
What's the requirement? A problem that bothers someone every day at work. Slow administrative approvals? Friction while accessing files from a database? It can be anything! The results have surprised us every time.
Over the years, we have tweaked this system's design and found specific characteristics that help bring standout results.
We found that cross-pollination (making cross-departmental teams) exposes everyone to unexplored, alternate viewpoints. Next, we insist on executing ideas in short turnaround times rather than coming up with groundbreaking ideas. Finally, we foster a lean theory of execution — no idea is "big" or "small."
Apple's former Chief Design Officer, Jony Ive, once remarked about Steve Jobs: "I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily just squished."
In conclusion, to avoid losing promising ideas and nurture intrapreneurs, here are a few actionable steps one can take:
Encourage and reward risk-taking and innovation
Provide resources and support for employees to develop and implement new ideas
Create a flat, open organizational structure that fosters communication and collaboration
Offer training and development opportunities to enhance employee skills and knowledge
Empower employees to take ownership of their work and decision-making
Implement a system for idea generation and feedback
Recognize and celebrate successes, both big and small
Lead by example, demonstrating a passion for innovation and a willingness to take risks
Foster a culture of transparency, trust and accountability