December 2018 Innovate

Agile Intrapreneurship

Written By: David Whitney

Effective and successful intrapreneurship does not happen by accident. Initiating and engaging in entrepreneurial efforts inside organizations is a real challenge – and especially daunting when organizations move fast to commercialize innovative problem-solving solutions into new and sustainably profitable products and services. Regardless of the speed in which innovation is performed and commercialized, organizations need effective leadership, clear direction, defined purpose and talented employees to be successful at intrapreneurship.

In her book, “Unleashing the Intrapreneur,” Debbie Wooldridge outlines ways in which all employees have the potential to perform as intrapreneurs. Wooldridge describes intrapreneurs as “gain-fully employed workers of companies who use the staff, infrastructure and resources in their company as catalysts to foster, forge and bring to market new products or processes.”

Organizations that seek growth and relevance through innovation often encourage their employees to be intrapreneurs by having them look for opportunities within their sphere of influence or professional expertise. For example, employees with expertise and influence in operations should pursue and create opportunities to perform as intrapreneurs in operations.

But intrapreneurship is difficult. First, there’s always the risk of upending the status quo. An organization’s existing customers might not be ready for change, so jeopardizing this established relationship could result in losing customers.

Second, innovation can threaten and potentially cannibalize products and services used by loyal, profitable customers.

And third, organizations should dutifully manage the risks (operational, marketplace, financial, brand/reputation) associated with their product lines and service offerings if they wish for them to survive – and thrive – in today’s global marketplace.

And then there is the risk of uncertainty when it comes to intrapreneurship. The time, resources and effort necessary to create and commercialize new products and services are fraught with ambivalence and unpredictability. Intrapreneurial initiatives could take years to produce meaningful impacts on revenue and profits.

This ambiguity makes most leaders hesitant or outright afraid to approve the resources required to generate the financial metrics – that is, return on investment – that determines whether or not organizations should invest time, money, effort and people in projects. This fact of organizational life is common when it comes to innovation and intrapreneurship.

The reality is this: Innovative products and services need time to mature in the marketplace. Maturity occurs via iterations based on feedback provided by customers and users. This iterative process of incremental improvement better positions products and services to withstand the never-ending demands of customers’ increasingly exacting wants and needs.

When the innovative, problem-solving solutions are disruptive in nature, organizations likely face the challenges of how best to serve new market segments while turning a profit and fulfilling unique and unfamiliar demands by a customer base it doesn’t fully understand or know. This reality forces organizations to learn the characteristics, needs, wants and expectations of new customers, given they cannot rely on existing data and on their histories with existing customers.

It is well known that most organizations have strategies and execution plans. So, it is no surprise that organizations practicing agile intrapreneurship have strategies and execute plans for achieving successful outcomes.
A strategy that positions your organization to be successful at agile intrapreneurship can incorporate the following five-point execution plan:

1 Design and operate a flexible operating structure so that agile intrapreneurial activities can incubate, surface and spread.

  • Most fast-moving, creative, intrapreneurial initiatives push the envelope when it comes to processes and procedures. Unconventional approaches like intrapreneurship nullify entrenched practices; loosening an organization’s operating structure allows for intrapreneurs to find their footing and flourish under the right conditions.

2. Encourage employees to be constantly “falling in love with problems and solving them with innovative solutions.”

  • Agile intrapreneurship is not about ideas. Nor is innovation. Both concepts are about solving evidence-based problems with unique solutions that can be commercially executed into products and services that generate profits.

3. Recruit, assemble, train, manage, motivate and reward a diverse workforce committed to agile intrapreneurship.

  • Organizational leadership recognizes that a diverse workforce maximizes employee productivity, encourages employee creativity and increases employee loyalty; a diverse workforce also incorporates different perspectives when seeking to understand and attempting to satisfy customer demands.

4. Create an attractive and rewarding career path for intrapreneurs inside the organization.

  • Intrapreneurs tend to be nonconformists. They are most likely highly motivated employees who are de-motivated by legacy jobs, unimaginative methods for getting things done and conventional career paths. Look for nontraditional approaches to attract these employees into agile intrapreneurial initiatives. Doing so can produce the benefit of advancing their careers while energizing the organization’s operations and increasing overall output.

5. Allow for mistakes, encourage and support “moonshot” projects (ah, within reason!) and celebrate failures along with successes.

  • Intrapreneurial efforts – especially the type that moves fast and breaks things – are fraught with mistakes and failures. This is a reasonable expectation because, well, everyone fails. And because intrapreneurs (and innovators and entrepreneurs) fail frequently, it is important to celebrate the types of failure that teaches and instructs, that measures progress made, that creates stronger and wiser people and that results in intrapreneurial success.

This plan for establishing and executing agile intrapreneurship inside your organization does not guarantee success. However, these five points constitute an execution plan that loosens operational gridlock while establishing a dynamic environment in which agile intrapreneurship can take root and hopefully flourish. In the process, intrapreneurial practices can evolve into an indistinguishable part of the organization’s culture. When that occurs, the process of continuous innovation and the practice of agile intrapreneurship can position the organization to become, or remain, a marketplace leader.

The time is now for organizations to embrace and practice agile intrapreneurship. That is because most (if not all) organizations – regardless of size or location – face vigorous and increasingly ruthless competition from all corners of the globe.

Organizations seeking marketplace relevance or industry dominance can do so by practicing agile intrapreneurship. When that occurs, the organization’s intrapreneurs are empowered to produce innovative solutions that solve problems, satisfy existing customers while attracting new ones, adapt to changing industry dynamics and distance the organization from its competition.

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