February 2018 Innovate

Intrapreneurship Takes Charge

Written By: David Whitney

To remain relevant and competitive, many organizations require their employees perform like entrepreneurs – by practicing intrapreneurship. In today’s growth-obsessed, hyper-competitive global economy, entrepreneurs are touted as the newly minted stars of global business.  And yet, for successful entrepreneurs and their entrepreneurial enterprises, many individuals and organizations struggle to achieve commercial success, operational scale and financial prosperity. Because after all: If being an entrepreneur was easy, everyone would do it.

The reality is entrepreneurship is not easy and, obviously, not for everyone.  I can attest to this as my bank account would be larger – and my hair would be less gray – if I wasn’t pulled by entrepreneurship’s addicting and often, exasperating grasp. Many individuals are either not interested in entrepreneurship or pulled by its power. For most people, working in a large organization provides fulfillment – and importantly – a steady paycheck.  For others, operating as an entrepreneur allows them to be in charge of their own destiny – though most often at the sake of financial security.  And then there is a third way, serving as an intrapreneur.

The term “intrapreneur” and the roles of intrapreneurs may be unfamiliar to many people. It was to me until I worked in Silicon Valley and witnessed how organizations – usually larger, established companies – infused the spirit and practice of entrepreneurship by deploying employees in roles that sought to commercialize innovations and expand existing product lines and service offerings.

Former Silicon Valley startup and now global giant, Alphabet (nee Google) launched an intrapreneurial initiative with the mission of launching “moon shots” when it came to innovations and problem-solving solutions.  The moon shooters operate in a work unit known as Google X and they serve as a successful example of intrapreneurship at work in a larger, established organization.

I believe Dictionary.com’s definition of “intrapreneur” is spot-on: “An intrapreneur is an employee of a corporation given the freedom and financial support to produce innovative products, create new services, update existing systems, etc.  An intrapreneur is usually not required to follow the organization’s standard operating procedures, accepted routines and/or established protocols.”  Simply, an intrapreneur operates as an entrepreneur inside the organization’s existing corporate structure.

From my own experience in Silicon Valley and around the world, I have met intrapreneurs who possess varying levels of entrepreneurial skills.  These talented individuals – many who are engineers – utilize their skills by working inside large organizations on projects to commercialize innovations.

In my view, intrapreneurs have the best of both worlds.  That is, intrapreneurs get paid – including receipt of employment benefits, financial incentives, etc. – to perform as entrepreneurs inside their organizations.  The global start-up community has proven the modern world needs entrepreneurs. The frenetic pace and hyper-competitive nature of today’s global economy forces organizations to respond quickly and successfully to competitors and market conditions, organizations bent on success cannot afford to become complacent or slow to adapt to change.

The success-seeking organizations that use intrapreneurs reap the benefits that result when an organization’s culture is entrepreneurial and innovative.  If an organizational culture doesn’t allow for intrapreneurs or does not fully utilize the contributions intrapreneurs make, the organization runs the risk of being disrupted, disconnected from the market, becoming irrelevant and/or left adrift in operational disarray.

Preventing this from happening is one reason why intrapreneurs are so valuable.  Smart organizations utilize individuals who fit the profile of an intrapreneur:  They are good at solving problems, hard-wired to innovate and comfortable as change agents.  These professional skills and personal characteristics make intrapreneurs effective at working independently, yet most intrapreneurs I know are equally adept as team players.

Equally important, intrapreneurs are effective at working seamlessly in an organization’s integrated team structure – and are able to willingly embrace and represent, its accepted culture.  Just like with most employees, intrapreneurs are more successful when empowered and supported by senior leadership; in turn, intrapreneurs represent the best interests of their organizations’ activities – and in the process, earn the respect of corporate supervisors, peers and subordinates.

From what I have seen, intrapreneurs possess varying degrees of rebelliousness. By their nature and style, they usually question – and often challenge – the status quo.  By changing the rules of how markets operate or how organizations function, intrapreneurs attempt to break down barriers, obliterate obstacle and confront conventional wisdom.  The expected outcomes of successful intrapreneurial projects can result in accelerated innovation and if executed properly, increased profitability.

There is evidence that being an intrapreneur can benefit the individual due to the nature of intrapreneurship.  Furthermore, being an intrapreneur – and being a rebel at the right time and right place – can boost your career and should enrich you personally as well, said Dr. Francesca Gino, a Behavioral Scientist professor at Harvard Business School.

Professor Gino’s article in the Harvard Business Review, “Let Your Workers Rebel,” described the benefits of rebelliousness in the context of intrapreneurship.  Gino studied more thean 2,000 employees across a wide range of industries around the world with nearly 50 percent of the study’s participants indicated they work for organizations where they felt the need to conform. Additionally, more than 50 percent of participants responded that their organizations do not challenge the status quo.

The study also found that participants’ responses reflected organizational cultures that perpetuate compliant behaviors and cautious actions.  Incontestable compliance and superfluous caution can be disastrous for organizations fighting to survive – let alone thrive – in a time of when continuous innovation dismantles legacy business models and disruptive innovation fuels the constant 360 degree assault by upstarts taking on established organizations. This new reality represents the New World Order – and is poised to continue its disruptive and dismantling transformation for years to come.

This is why intrapreneurs are so important in organizations both large and small.  To cultivate intrapreneurs’ rebelliousness and to contribute to their effectiveness, organizations should follow the outline described by Professor Gino in “Let Your Workers Rebel”:

  • Provide Opportunities for Employees to be Themselves
  • Encourage Employees to Exercise Their Signature Strengths
  • Allow (Require?) Employees to Question the Status Quo
  • Make Work Fun, Challenging, Rewarding, and Meaningful
  • Assemble Diverse Teams and Promote Broad Perspectives
  • Voice and Encourage Dissenting Viewpoints

Organizations need intrapreneurs more than ever. In a world of accelerating change and increasing uncertainty, even industry leaders are tasked with improving how their organizations operate and how they can produce greater enterprise value.  Leading organizations position and support intrapreneurial teams so that the intrapreneurs involved can generate the innovative outputs that increase enterprise value.  The intrapreneurs act like entrepreneurs and exercise the permission granted to them to “ask for forgiveness, not seek permission.” This autonomy indulges intrapreneurs to remain relentlessly focused on identifying new opportunities and transforming those innovative solutions into profitable results.

This is why I consider intrapreneurs to be the stars of today’s global economy.  So, here’s to intrapreneurs everywhere. Organizations need you now more than ever!


David Whitney writes about innovation and entrepreneurship and consults with companies on all-things involving innovation and entrepreneurship. Whitney has taught courses on innovation and entrepreneurship in both college and corporate classrooms and currently serves as Innovator-in-Residence at LeadingAgile Innovation Labs. As Innovator-in-Residence, Whitney uses his operational and subject matter expertise to help LeadingAgile’s clients and strategic partners deploy teams of entrepreneurial-minded employees to produce problem-solving, innovative solutions. In addition to these activities, Whitney serves as co-Chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the Gainesville region. 

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