What Do Post-It Notes, Amazon Drones and Gmail All Have in Common? They Were Developed With the Same Leadership Technique.

How intrapreneurship can transform your business.

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By Charles Knippen • Oct 6, 2017


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What do drone deliveries, Post-Its and Gmail have in common?

Other than being innovative (and profitable), all three were born of intrapreneurship. Rather than being launched by a top-down decree (like the iPhone), all three products were, at least initially, conceived by employees. The key was that their respective organizations (Amazon, 3M and Google) all recognized and encouraged their visions, providing staff and funding.

In this way, intrapreneurship provides an avenue for employees indulge their creative urges (and calling toward entrepreneurship) -- but on your terms and to the benefit of your existing company. Really, it's a win-win proposition for everyone.

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Intrapreneurship versus entrepreneurship

In a nutshell, intrapreneurship is when organizations harness the entrepreneurial drive and vision of their employees to their own benefit. Unlike entrepreneurs, who work independently to execute ideas on their own, intrapreneurs already have an existing structure to work with. Generally, their endeavors will be encouraged and nurtured by company resources and personnel; ultimately, the company -- not the individual -- will be the final owner of the idea.

Take Amazon's drone delivery project, a dynamic technology that allows unmanned robotic vehicles to drop packages by parachute (and steer off-course parachute packages by means of compressed air canisters). According to The New York Times, the delivery-by-drone project was the brainchild of a low-level engineer, who was then granted the resources to execute his concept.

How can companies implement intrapreneurship?

Though the fruits of intrapreneurship are fairly diverse, its actual execution can be deceptively simple -- and fairly easy to implement. Drawing from the long experience of other companies, there is a time-tested process that can jump-start intrapreneurship and drive innovation.

They comprise three stages: brainstorming, networking and execution.

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Brainstorming (15 percent time)

Long before Silicon Valley made its name, 3M utilized intrapreneurs to help build the company into a massively profitable company (in 2016, 3M reaped $30 billion in sales). Though the company's intrapreneurial initiatives are little-known, they've played key roles in transforming the organization from a struggling manufacturer into a profitable, applied sciences company.

The most successful of 3M's intrapreneurship programs was 15 percent time, a model since adapted by Silicon Valley hotshots like Google (where it's known as 20 percent time, even if the concept remains the same). Essentially, employees spent 15 percent of their time on passion projects. Often, these projects were comprised of leads discovered during the workweek -- promising clues that designers, developers and marketers were forced to shelve.

Networking (science fairs and forums)

Cleverly, 3M paired 15 percent time with a company-wide exhibition -- essentially a science fair where proud employees showed off their passion projects. Employees displayed their experiments and findings, chatting with any interested parties, seeking collaborators and exchanging ideas and enthusiasm freely. In fact, Post-Its were created from a similar encounter between two 3M scientists: one had created a weak, seemingly useless adhesive, whereas the other was in search of an easy-to-use marker that would stick to surfaces (such as paper or wood) without damaging them. The two men met in one of 3M's numerous forums for lateral communication and research -- and the rest was history.

Not only did the company give its employees an outlet for their imagination, it also provided various channels for them to connect with other like-minded individuals -- a prerequisite for successful execution. In this sense, 3M's management seemed to grasp a fundamental truth of intrapreneurship that other organizations did not: Absent the right team, even the best intrapreneurial initiative would not succeed. In and of itself, then, 15 percent time is not enough to launch sweeping, advanced projects and changes.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Execution (taking a risk and building a new division)

After brainstorming and networking, the final step is execution, which centers around team-building and org charts. Without the actual resources of an organization (and the trust of managers), intrapreneurship is clearly impossible.

Take Amazon's Prime Air, its drone delivery service. Though details are scarce, given Amazon's penchant for secrecy, the evidence seems to suggest that at least one of the founders of Prime Air was promoted and empowered with the necessary funding and staff to execute the project.

Caveats on culture . . .

Given intrapreneurship's very tangible, positive benefits, one would think that it would be more popular outside Silicon Valley and companies like 3M. Yet, at its heart, intrapreneurship must reconcile long-term payoff versus short-term setbacks. In this sense, the greatest challenge in implementing intrapreneurship is cultural: Managers must be allowed to look beyond short-term indicators like quarterly profits -- or perhaps be given further incentives for invention and creativity.

One interesting way to encourage long-term thinking is by building it into guidelines and metrics. For instance, 3M has an internal rule that demands 30 percent of each division's sales must come from products less than four years old. In this manner, the company ensures a steady pipeline of innovation and intrapreneurship.

And it's not just 3M that takes the long view: Amazon's drone initiative began in 2013 and made its debut in March 2017, nearly four years later. Yet, the company bet that, like its other innovations (from producing its own movies to opening physical stores), drone delivery would, over the long haul, positively benefit the company. This bet solidified Amazon's reputation for bold, forward-thinking vision, with Fast Company naming it the Most Innovative Company in the World in 2017.

But, equally important is the tolerance of risk. Numerous sources, from Harvard Business Review to CNN Money (as well as the company itself) have emphasized that 3M sees mistakes not as dead-ends which waste valuable time and money, but rather as necessary steps on the way to investment.

After all, the company itself was born of re-imagination: though 3M started off by mining a mineral called corundum, they soon discovered that the material was too soft to serve as a proper sandpaper. In desperation, the company pivoted dramatically, taking a chance on an unknown inventor and creating Wetordry, a new sandpaper that produced less friction and dust.

Related: Inspirational Quotes From 100 Famous Business Leaders (Infographic)

The crucial factor . . .

Ultimately, the proof is in the bottom line. To return to the example of Amazon's drones, consider this: What if Amazon had not empowered a visionary engineer to execute his plan? It's more than likely that he would have either left the company to try to build it on his own or simply have given up on it. Either way, Amazon would have lost a great idea -- the chance to corner an untapped market and an opportunity to earn billions.

For this reason, Harvard Business Review labels intrapreneurship not simply as a driving force in companies, but as a key engine of innovation. In this way, intrapreneurship is a form of big-picture, long-term thinking (and investing): Though these projects and technologies may take some time to develop, they will, over the long haul, positively benefit the company.

Ultimately, intrapreneurship is a rare, win-win proposition in the world of business. Should employees be given space and time to grow a concept from paper napkin to fully functioning prototype, not only will they benefit from the resources of an established company, but the company will also become a more dynamic, flexible, and innovative organization.

Charles Knippen

National President, National Society of Leadership and Success

Charles Knippen is the president of The National Society of Leadership and Success.

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