How “intrapreneurs” can bring entrepreneurship to an organization

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The business need for intrapreneurship, the qualities of intrapreneurs and the factors that drive business success are covered in the insightful book, Intrapreneurs: who, what, how and why, by Susan Foley.

Intrapreneurs are corporate contractors or internal contractors; they are seen as mavericks, trailblazers, builders, champions of innovation and agents of change. They don’t sit on the sidelines; they create new mental models and progress while bringing change and innovation to their business.

The book offers a range of perspectives on the characteristics of intrapreneurs, the challenges they face, and engagement strategies for leadership. Some case studies, figures and a reference section would have been welcome additions to the material, and there are also quite a few repetitions and several typos.

Susan Foley is a managing partner of corporate advisory firm Corporate Entrepreneurs LLC. The book is inspired by his own experience as an intrapreneur. His other books are Indoor Contractors and Acceleration: modify the speed of growth. She has taught at Babson College and the University of Suffolk.

Here are my seven takeaway groups from this 260-page book, also summarized in the table below. See also my reviews on related books, Gorillas can dance, multipliers, Moonshot Effect, rebel talent, The Invincible Company, double transformation, Innovator’s Journey, creative spirit, and Intrinsic.

I. Background

“Intrapreneurs have a different mindset, thought process, decision-making and propensity to act,” observes Susan.

Many intrapreneurs have side projects, which may be inside or outside the company. Serial intrapreneurs execute a range of projects, regardless of their role at the time.

Intrapreneurs differ from entrepreneurs by their ability to understand the constraints and forces of the business world, and navigate to the creative end. They also have the financial and professional cushion of the business environment, with less risk.

Many companies have set up accelerators to engage with external entrepreneurs and startups, but they need to improve their own internal support for intrapreneurs. They must exploit the core business while exploring new activities.

“Organizations need to cultivate business spirit while maintaining a balance between the core business and the growth business,” Susan points out. Juggling this takes finesse, skill and endurance.

II. Foundations

“Intrapreneurship is a process used to develop new companies, products, services or processes within an existing organization to create value and generate new revenue growth through entrepreneurial thinking and action,” says Susan.

Intrapreneurs are creators, doers, and doers. They are good at idea generation, communication, and completing tasks. They take calculated risks, balance intuition and data, focus on the future, are confident and persistent.

“Unlike more traditional employees, intrapreneurs are ready to step up, speak up and stand out even in times of uncertainty,” observes Susan. They love the exhilaration even though it may be a roller coaster ride. They are restless and must be constantly challenged to stay ahead.

Intrapreneurs believe strongly in what they do, which can even become a cause. “That’s why most intrapreneurs are true to their project first, then the organization,” she adds.

“They are not afraid to fail. They’re more worried if they don’t try,” says Susan. “They see failure as a step to success.”

“If you don’t fail, you don’t learn and progress. The only way to improve is to experience both success and failure,” she suggests.

III. Qualities

Susan defines six key skills intrapreneurs: independent thinking, navigating uncertainty, engagement, change, leadership and execution.

1. Independent thinking

“Intrapreneurs are ready to explore the unknown,” describes Susan. They are whole-brained and integrative thinkers. They accept complexity and can spot patterns and connections.

2. Navigating uncertainty

“Intrapreneurs embrace the unknown, they see it as a field of possibilities”, observes Susan. They can cope with uncertainty and ambiguity through flexibility and experimentation.

Their plans can balance short-term demands and long-term needs. Intrapreneurs are collaborative but can also be competitive.

3. Engagement

“Intrapreneurs are very committed to their work. They love the excitement of the challenge,” Susan describes. They want to stretch and grow. They are self-directed and want to find opportunities and solve challenges.

4. Change

“Intrapreneurs don’t just drive change, they break down resistance to change,” writes Susan. “They take the lead, they make things happen.”

5. Steering

Although intrapreneurs are not always inventors, they are team builders and business architects. They collaborate, network and build relationships.

6. Execution

Execution is based on vision and ability to deliver. Intrapreneurs lead iteratively and flexibly and are good negotiators. They can handle pressure and are very set on closure, Susan describes.

IV. Organizational impacts

Intrapreneurs help generate the growth of new businesses. They facilitate and accelerate change. Supporting them helps a company attract and retain the best and brightest talent, suggests Susan.

“Intrapreneurship helps employees stretch and grow while keeping them engaged,” she adds.

Companies such as Google, Apple, Intel, Virgin, 3M and Lockheed-Martin have benefited from intrapreneurs. They help create new products and processes, and rebrand organizations to be more innovative.

V. Challenges

Unfortunately, many companies have short-term financial pressures and do not invest in long-term support for intrapreneurship; a balanced approach is needed.

If intrapreneurs are not committed enough in their businesses, they may leave to start their own business or become independent consultants and construction workers, warns Susan. Others may stay but stick to the main business.

Millennials, in particular, seek more meaning, social awareness and creativity in their workplace. Intrapreneurship programs can help invigorate, re-energize and redesign work environments, says Susan.

“Depending on how your organization views failure, it can be career limiting or career enhancing,” she warns.

Other obstacles from colleagues can be resentment, jealousy and power politics due to loss of control or reluctance to change. She advises intrapreneurs to think about how their abilities “complement, contrast or conflict” with others in the business.

“The challenge for intrapreneurs is how far they can push the boundaries of the organization,” warns Susan.

Successful intrapreneurs may be recognized internally, but stories about them do not seem to be publicized on the outside, she laments. More academic and industrial research in this area is needed.

VI. Management mandate

Organizations must decide how much to invest in the different types of innovation: extensions, improvements and transformations. Everyone calls different things approaches, investments and cultures.

“Intrapreneurship must be personalized to the unique and diverse culture and operating environment of each organization,” advises Susan. Some other employees may already be intrapreneurial, it is up to management to recognize them and make them accountable.

Leaders must consider politics to tolerate and learn from failure within the framework of an experiment. Instead of focusing solely on operational efficiency and risk management, they need to become more proactive and innovative.

“Proactively recruit people with an entrepreneurial spirit,” advises Susan.

It is important to give them freedom and flexibility to experiment, let them tackle pressing challenges, provide mentors and sounding boards, and break down organizational barriers.

Traditional leaders who want to become intrapreneurial leaders must also develop these types of skills and abilities themselves.

VII. The road ahead

Intrapreneurs need to reflect on their own skills and accomplishments and improve their skills and abilities. Susan advises them to build a wallet intrapreneurial experiences and seize larger and more challenging opportunities.

“True intrapreneurs love ups, downs, long hours, heated debates and pressure to deliver something new,” she explains. They want to shape the future and make a difference.

To be successful in the long term, intrapreneurs must earn the right to be one. They must demonstrate legitimacy through skills, networks and projects.

Susan advises them to bring a range of support on board stakeholders: CEO, sponsor, teams and customers. Intrapreneurs need to question decisions made at the top, but also co-create with customers and partners.

“Being an intrapreneur isn’t a destination, it’s a journey,” says Susan. “Create a personal brand, build your presence and demonstrate credibility,” she advises.

It involves continuous improvement through learning about yourself and the business, and pushing the boundaries. State of mind, decisiveness and action are the results. Intrapreneurs need to assess their growth in terms of creative scope, priorities, and influences.

Intrapreneurship is a journey of head and heart, intellect and action, self and community, concludes Susan.

In sum, in times of increasing change and uncertainty, intrapreneurship can help organizations cope with complexity, take calculated risks, create new markets and retain creative talent.

YourStory also published the pocketbook “Proverbs and quotes for entrepreneurs: a world of inspiration for startups” as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, android).

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta
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