Entrepreneurs are the supposed heroes of our era. They are simultaneously titans of industry, Renaissance artists, and Hollywood Stars, building products, empires, and literal rocket ships that will be spoken about for decades to come. In the modern economy, those who create something out of nothing command ultimate respect.
But the entrepreneur has a less glamorous, oft-overlooked cousin, loitering just outside the spotlight. I’m talking about the intrapreneur: someone with a similar go-getting spirit but who creates change from within the large organisation they work for, rather than by building a new company themselves.
If you put an intrapreneur into the right corporate environment, where creativity is encouraged and supported financially, the possibilities are endless. When scientists at the American conglomerate 3M created a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive, they were given the tools by management to turn this discovery into a viable product. As a result, fluorescent Post-It Notes now litter brainstorming sessions across the world. Other examples of culturally-defining products borne from the determination and ingenuity of intrapreneurship include the Sony Playstation and McDonald’s’ Happy Meals.
While entrepreneurs steal the plaudits and headlines, intrapreneurs can actually add more value to a business. Employees are a company’s greatest asset, as they know the organisation intimately, but the grass can sometimes seem greener when speaking to external consultants or shiny, buyable startups. Having your team innovate from within will tend to be more effective, cheaper, and fundamentally more rewarding.
The pandemic has only increased the value of this way of thinking. Remote and hybrid workplaces will force us to tear up the rule book on employee engagement, with in-person motivational techniques having far less impact.
Instead, employees will need to feel integral to the company they work for, even if they’re not in the actual building. Fostering a culture of enterprise innovation, where anyone can have a dramatic, positive effect on their company through new ideas, will keep staff inspired, build a true sense of camaraderie, and help break up the monotony of working from home. At a time when employee mental health is under threat, and loneliness is on the rise, having colleagues work together to develop a brand new product or service is exciting, social, and motivating.
This is especially true for the next generation of workers, who are more purpose-driven than any of their predecessors. For Gen-Zers, financial incentives are nothing compared to the ability to make a genuine impact on the world.
When it comes to sustainability, for example, an individual can bring about much more change from within a large organisation than by creating an entirely new company. It does, of course, take time for a big tanker conglomerate to change direction, but when they do the consequences are seismic. Intrapreneurs will shape the war on plastics, for example, make big business go carbon neutral, or improve the nutritional intake of babies, by leveraging change from within the belly of the beast.
Intrapreneurship and enterprise innovation – developing brilliant, cost-saving innovations from within your organisation – can clearly add value to all big companies. The remaining challenge is how to start this process. The common Achilles heel of big, metric-driven corporates is that everything is arranged in a meticulous way, leaving little room for new ideas.
The first step in the right direction is to appoint internal people responsible to build systems which allow creativity to flourish, Innovation Champions, you could say. Identify people from the team who show entrepreneurial spirit, have the trust of senior executives, are curious about technology, communicate well, and are not afraid of mistakes.
Make these people accountable for change, and give them the tools to create a holistic environment where all employees have the freedom to innovate. Once these foundations are set, embarking on a rapid innovation process with help from a team of experts will kick your enterprise’s innovation into gear.
More often than not, employees want to be creative but don’t feel allowed to do so. With a positive message from management, and an Innovation Champion with the gumption to bring around real, long-lasting change, the next generation of Musks, Gates, and Jobs could already be on your payroll.