What image comes to mind when you think of the word “entrepreneur”? Many of us will visualize young creative fanatics on a solo mission to change the world. I was surprised when, in one of my strategy workshops, I met a woman named Jean Feiwel. Jean was certainly an entrepreneur – she was responsible for launching a platform for budding self-published authors to hone and promote their manuscripts. She had many of the traits we associate with entrepreneurs – intrinsic motivation, innovative aspirations, and the ability to generate support for her ideas. The only difference: Jean works for a company.
Jean is an in-house entrepreneur, intrapreneur at Macmillan Publishers where she launched a new business program called Swoon Reads (now Thrive Reads) to connect aspiring authors and publishers. When I heard about her story, I realized there must be thousands more like her, innovators imagining and activating new ideas and business models within great companies. I set out to determine if Jean was the exception or the rule. My research study of 120 internal innovators and the most transformative innovations over the past 30 years has proven that innovators like John are no exception. Seventy percent of those most impactful innovations have come from corporate intrapreneurs like Jean. They are not an anomaly; they are the rule.
Ideas don’t come from companies. They come from the people who work there. The reason we associate entrepreneurship with innovative ideas is not because entrepreneurs are smarter, work harder, or have a unique fortune. That’s because entrepreneurs and their fledgling businesses haven’t yet built the barriers known to stop good ideas in their tracks.
Many great companies find that as they scale, the fire of entrepreneurship wanes. They’re responding by hiring college grads, entrepreneurs, and creative types, but that’s not the right solution. Instead, they should tackle the organizational hierarchies, values, incentives, politics and bureaucracy that inhibit creativity.
Through this same research study, I discovered that there are seven stages and corresponding hurdles in the path of an internal innovator. They are: Intent, Need, Options, Value Blockers, Action, Team and Environment – together they form the acronym INNOVATE. These obstacles can support or hinder your best ideas and efforts. These are the key areas you need to focus on, whether you want to push your best ideas forward in your business or act as a leader who wants to set up your own teams for success.
As an employee, how do you begin to recognize and motivate yourself to pursue intrapreneurial opportunities? And as a leader, how do you inspire the intention to innovate in your employees? Francesca Gino, author of Rebellious talent: why it pays to break the rules at work and in life, said that we are all born curious, but the reason people tend not to express their ideas is because they are afraid of being judged. She explains: “Judgment and curiosity cannot coexist.
Gino recommends building curiosity into the way you come up with ideas. Rather than coming to the table with an innovation and asking people to come on board, say, “I’m curious why we’re not considering X.” You will open up an engaging conversation and avoid judgment. For leaders, she reminds us that curiosity is contagious: ask questions and show interest in what employees are saying. She also suggests implementing learning goals — goals outside of performance-based metrics that encourage people to be curious, which will ultimately activate their intention to find new and better ways to do their jobs.
Future intrapreneurs often become frustrated when their organizations reject their ideas. They give up, thinking they just don’t have what it takes to come up with creative innovation. But more often than not, it’s not the idea that’s the problem. Rather, it is the employee’s lack of understanding of what the market needs and what aligns with the organization’s strategy. Tendayi Vikiexpert in business innovation and author of Navy Pirates, explains that the reason corporate innovators fail is that they have placed themselves in an antagonistic relationship with the organization: “The ultimate skill of the business innovator is the ability to make connections between everything they work on and where their organization is,” says Viki. “If they can’t build that bridge, they can’t succeed as business innovators.”
On the other hand, leaders have a responsibility to develop a clear strategy and communicate this to their employees. Adam Bryantauthor of The CEO test: master the challenges that make or Break all leaderssuggests a four-part method he learned from Dinesh Paliwal, former CEO of Harmon International:
- Write a concrete summary of what you are trying to achieve
- Indicate the three or four levers you will pull to achieve this objective
- Identify challenges you risk being confronted
- Clarify the metrics that will determine whether you have achieved it or not
Once you get into the innovation mindset and familiarize yourself with your organization’s strategy, how do you conceive of a truly disruptive idea? It depends on how many interesting options you can generate. I’ve interviewed Gary Hamel, one of the most influential thought leaders in business and management, who said, “Your chance of adopting a truly game-changing strategy is arithmetically determined by the number of potential options you create first.” Whether you’re an employee or the leader of a company, you’ll need a process to generate hundreds of ideas each year. Hamel recommends starting with customer insights to uncover changing trends and issues customers are talking about.
In an organization, there is a natural resistance to innovative ideas, as new ideas often clash with the core business model of the company. How will you overcome these conflicts? Tendayi Viki recommends collaborating with your company’s business model rather than trying to fight it. “It’s important to be collaborative. Build bridges. This increases the chances of success. »
Besides, Rob Wolcott, founder of the World Innovation Network (TWIN), suggests when the timing of a new innovation is uncertain or you’re not sure how it will pan out, consider creating a bridging business model. Netflix did this by delivering movies by mail until internet speeds and adoption were fast enough and widespread. Learning to think creatively about the business model around your innovation opens up opportunities to reduce the risk of rejection, for example by choosing a transition model that complements your company’s existing business model.
Established organizations often require employees to prove that an idea will work before giving permission to act. This puts potential in-house innovators in a Catch-22: they can’t act, so they can’t prove their idea will work, so they can’t act. Liz Wisemanexecutive advisor and author of Impact players: how to get ahead, play bigger and multiply your impactexplains that the most impactful employees devise ways to take the lead and move ideas forward by taking an “ask and adjust” approach.
Don’t wait until your idea is completely baked in, take small actions instead. To see if your idea is on target, get feedback and evolve the idea before the final stage when you formally pitch it. You can act sooner if you learn to conduct frugal experiments like fast business donor Navi Radjou recommended.
Rigid corporate hierarchies are known to stifle internal innovation. Successful intrapreneurs recognize that pursuing new ideas requires failing quickly and learning. They bring together cross-functional teams that move quickly and are focused on learning. They often do this before asking for formal permission. Once you’ve formed your team, shift your mindset around failure. Rob Wolcott suggests, “If someone has an idea and we hear it’s not a good idea, stop calling it a failure. Call it a hypothesis test.
As an employee and as a leader, start changing the way you talk about the early stages of innovation. You will build and lead teams that are more open to learning, acting fast and iterating based on results.
Finding support for innovative ideas in a business is politically complicated because the structures and norms that help established organizations function also tend to hinder creativity. David Schonthal, author of The human element: overcoming the resistance that awaits new ideasexplains that most people make the mistake of focusing on fuel: hhighlight the value of the idea in the form of features, benefits or messages. Surprisingly, this is much less effective in changing mentalities than reducing the friction who oppose change.
To convince people to support your idea, find out which of these frictions is holding them back:
- Inertia: the desire to stick to what we know
- Effort: The energy needed to change
- Emotion: the negative feelings that accompany change
- Reactance: The resistance to change
Once you identify the friction that stands in your way, you will know where to focus to reduce it.
To improve their chances of innovating, companies do not need to hire more entrepreneurs. They need to tap into the creativity and ideas of their internal innovators. The seven obstacles of the INOVATE model represent the journey – and potential pitfalls – of an intrapreneur.
Whether you’re an employee looking to launch new ideas without quitting your day job or a leader who wants to tap into the wellspring of creative ideas and individuals that are sure to be waiting within your organization, direct your efforts towards these key areas to improve your chances of innovation success.