Blog Post

If You Want Your Business to Thrive, Embrace Intrapreneurship

Hattie James

Guest Contributor

In our modern age of fast-paced innovation, there's no lack of advice for individuals who want to tap into an entrepreneurial mindset. With the cost of starting a business continuing to fall, people around the world are finding ways to turn their ideas into companies with little overhead, disrupting industries and sparking job growth along the way.

Meanwhile, large organizations with nearly unlimited resources struggle with innovation. As George Deeb, managing partner at Red Rocket Ventures, writes in Forbes, "Once companies get to a certain size, their investors become more conservative, their leaders less entrepreneurial and their employees less willing to stick their necks out with 'out-of-the-box' ideas." The result? A stagnant and sluggish comfort that is likely to end the company altogether. Just look at Blockbuster, Borders, and Pan Am, as Deeb points out.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Corporations are, in fact, prime for innovation. They have the resources to experiment. They have a network of consumers, clients, and partners. And, perhaps most importantly, they've invested in hiring smart, talented people. The secret is to encourage these people to experiment, and inspire them to innovate from within.

Make Time for 'Intrapreneurship'

Journalist Christian Koch has called intrapreneurs—employees who take responsibility for creating innovation of any kind within a business—the "secret weapon" of the business world.

But how can companies tap into these intrapreneurs? Your employees are your greatest resource, but they also need resources in order to create. As journalist Howard Baldwin points out, this could be as simple as setting aside part of the daily routine for creative work.

In a piece on "Innovative Time Off", a policy adopted by companies like Google and 3M, Baldwin writes, "If you've used a Post-it Note lately or sent a message from a Gmail account, you've been the beneficiary of a corporate innovation program that gives employees time to be creative—and, while they're at it, sometimes invent products that go on to become wildly popular." At Google, employees are allotted 20 percent of their time to innovation. The Post-It was a product of 3M's 15 percent employee innovation time.

Microsoft offers a similar opportunity through Microsoft Garage, a program that allows employees to work on their own side projects. One resulting project? Word Flow, a keyboard app for iOS, which I use, that allows users to type with one hand via conventional methods or swiping. Keyboards can be customized with color schemes or even photos via in-app purchases.

Another project, Keyboard for Excel, optimizes mobile keyboards for use in Excel via Microsoft's cloud. While some projects become actual products, others are simply experiments for the developers—allowing them to get real-time feedback on their innovations to inform future work.

Create a Culture Where Difference Is Welcome

Other experts recommend investing not in specific programs, but a full culture shift. Instead of giving employees time away from work for innovation, simply allow them the freedom to use their time in the manner they see fit.

Rajshree Agarwal, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, writes in The Washington Post, "Forget blanket policies and one-size-fits-all. Don't treat everyone the same... Rather than thinking only about blanket policies and making sure that all employees are happy, it is critical to satisfy the high-ability people."

Agarwal argues that different people will bring different products to the table. Indeed, different people are different products. To paint them all with the same brush does them a disservice. By providing employees with the opportunity to take risks and fail, organizations will achieve greater creativity and success.

"If you want to attract entrepreneurial-minded employees, give them freedom to be innovative and provide an organization that makes it easy to thrive," says Agarwal. After all, when your employees thrive, your business thrives.

Photo: Creative Commons

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