Innovate October 2018

4 Ways to Overcome Challenges of Intrapreneurship


Written By: David Whitney

Incubating innovation is the goal of most organizations. To effectively incubate innovations, many organizations turn to intrapreneurship to accelerate the commercialization process.

Organizations can quantify the strength of their innovation capabilities by measuring how entrepreneurially oriented their employees are and by demonstrating the depth of leadership’s commitment to provide the support and resources needed to succeed at creating and commercializing innovations.

Organizations lacking employees with entrepreneurial mindsets or lacking leaders committed to the intrapreneurial mission will have a hard time winning at innovation.

The winning formula involves intrapreneurship. Though many organizations embrace the concept of intrapreneurship-fueled innovation, support often comes mostly in the form of slogans with very little innovation outcomes produced.

Without leadership support, succeeding at intrapreneurship is difficult. Even in the best situations and conditions, intrapreneurs must navigate their way around organizations by creating and applying new business models and practices for innovating and commercializing unique products and services.

Intrapreneurs are change agents who can be tasked with overturning an organizational and market place’s status quo. This is achieved by upending legacy systems, inverting existing operating structures and disrupting marketplace norms.

In their roles, intrapreneurs can often find themselves trapped in organizations that make the claim of being intrapreneurial but are not; this reality is an occupational hazard of intrapreneurship.

Although the concept of intrapreneurship has been around for decades, its practice is oftentimes misunderstood. Companies that correctly execute their intrapreneurial playbooks into game-changing innovation platforms (iconic examples include “Skunkworks” at Lockheed Martin, Post-it Notes at 3M and “Google X” at Alphabet) transform their industries and produce long-lasting economic impacts.

However, when intrapreneurship goes wrong (“Success has many parents; failure is an orphan”), the results can be disastrous for the organization and for the employees involved.

An example of this involves Target’s rapid expansion into Canada. Although Target’s Canadian strategy was based on a sound acquisition model combined with the experience of operating hundreds of big box stores in the U.S., the expansion – considered to be an intrapreneurial initiative – was a major misstep that resulted in a multi-billion-dollar write-down and the closing of all Target stores in Canada less than two years after the expansion.

Naturally, success is never guaranteed.

Intrapreneurs and the organizations that embrace intrapreneurship have obstacles to overcome in order to succeed. The intrapreneur faces the reality of having to overcome organizational inertia, cultural complacency and nearly immovable bureaucracy in securing leadership’s approval, rank-and-file’s support and the resources and time needed to produce successful outcomes.

Clearly, intrapreneurs benefit from being part of an existing organization. This allows them to navigate inside an organization with which they are familiar, compete in an industry they already know and leverage skills and the resources that should produce maximum returns on investment.

Most intrapreneurs have earned their way into their positions based on professional distinction and previous success.

Typical challenges faced by intrapreneurs and organizations pursuing intrapreneurial initiatives include:

  • The organization’s vetting process for evaluating and selecting initiatives can favor initiatives strategically aligned with what’s already in place.
  • A fear that an intrapreneurial initiative could cannibalize or make obsolete existing product lines or service offerings.
  • Intrapreneurs can be perceived as threats to the leaders – or managers – supporting them or the rank-and-file employees who work with them.
  • Innovation projects are inherently riskier than non-innovation projects. Innovation projects can pose technical or manufacturing challenges that can lead to project delays, cost overruns and heightened levels of stress and frustration.

To best navigate the inherent challenges imbedded in innovation projects, intrapreneurs and the organizations that support them can utilize the following key attributes in order to produce successful innovation outcomes:

  • Possess robust analytical skills and clearly communicate the intrapreneurial business case as leadership support is requested and organizational resources are sought.
  • Recruit and build cross-functional, multi-disciplinary teams of subject matter experts – fully aware that some team members
    will not completely support the project
    (at least initially).
  • Apply effective project management tools when planning and implementing project-based activities – and then managing various risks to the project’s conclusion.
  • Own the political currency and be savvy when navigating the internal politics of commercializing innovation and affecting organizational change.

Succeeding at innovation is not easy, yet without pursuing innovation, companies will die.

In a global economy that grows increasingly competitive by the day, organizations that commercialize innovations more quickly and more successfully are positioned to succeed. By fostering and supporting intrapreneurship, organizations win the innovation game.   

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