The Talent Within: The ‘Entrepreneurial Employee’

Intrapreneurs are employees who search for opportunities and exploit them through innovation using the resources of the organisation they work for.

BY MARTIN HAESE

The term intrapreneur was first coined in the late 1970’s by an American author, inventor and entrepreneur, Gilford Pinchot III.

Pinchot defined the term as ‘employees and leaders of large firms who bring to the organisation the traits of entrepreneurs.’

The concept of intrapreneurs is older than many think, and an often-cited example is Lockheed Martin during WW2 when Kelly Johnson was tasked with developing what became the XP-80 jet fighter for the US Army.

Johnson recruited a small team which later became known as Skunkworks. Given the escalation of the war effort, increased manufacturing output and subsequent lack of space, Skunkworks quite literally worked from a rented circus tent.

However inconvenient, being located outside of the corporate bureaucracy meant that Johnson was also able to work outside of its rules, traditions and hierarchies.

Johnson developed 14 rules and practices for intrapreneurship at Skunkworks and you can read them here  

Skunkworks designed and delivered the XP-80 in only 143 days – a full week before the delivery deadline.

Post War Intrapreneurs

During the post war years, many organisations actively encouraged intrapreneurial ecosystems and subsequent new products and innovations made companies such as 3M, Xerox, HP (Hewlett Packard) household names. However, other companies hosted significant internal R&D programs but could not make the leap of faith that their intrapreneurs asked of them.

‘Talent hits a target no-one else can hit. Genius hits a target no-one else can see’.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Steve Jobs presented the Apple iPhone to the public on the 29th June 2007 proving Arthur Schopenhauer right and every high school math’s teacher who ever uttered the phrase, ‘you won’t always have a calculator with you’ wrong.

Twelve years on from that first smart phone, we are rarely further than arm’s length away from having the entire sum of all recorded human knowledge at our fingertips.

The impact of the iPhone on businesses and society in general cannot be understated.

It not only changed the way we communicate but also the way we listen to music, how we meet partners, how we shop, socialise, keep fit, take notes and stay on time.

The list of products, and in some cases, industries made redundant by the iPhone and subsequent technologies and ideas enabled by it, is staggering.

Disruption on an epic scale

While the iPhone changed the way we take photos and what we do with them, it might surprise you to learn that it wasn’t Nikon, Canon or Sony that developed the first handheld digital camera, it was Kodak and they did it way back in 1975.

Kodak is often used as the worst example of how to create intrapreneurial ecosystem and it still stands today as a cautionary tale for any business.

It was Kodak who had been at the forefront of new technologies including dry plates to film and black and white to colour who ran a large R&D department and employed a 25-year-old engineer named Steve Sasson.

When Sasson developed the digital camera for Kodak it was a little different to what we think of today.

His camera weighed 3.6kg and took 23 seconds to store a black and white 0.01-megapixel photo onto a cassette tape. The cassette tape held 30 images and to put that into perspective, think of how many selfies you have on your phone today.

Most unfortunately for Sasson, Kodak’s executives were not as forward thinking as the young engineer. They saw, what seemed to them, an obvious threat to their 90% market share of film sales rather than a revolutionary new technology that could change society.

Kodak could not envisage a world without prints, photo frames and albums and certainly not one with Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Tinder.

Kodak allowed Sasson to continue his work and retained the intellectual property, but they forbade him from going public with it.

The result was that Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 while just two years later it was estimated that people took and uploaded 1.8 billion photographs per day or around 657 billion per year

In 2018, we collectively took an estimated 1 trillion photographs and only very few of them were taken using film and even fewer were printed.

Kodak got disrupted.

The late Twentieth Century

The eighties and early nineties were a bleak time for intrapreneurs.

A shift in corporate culture meant that many organisations became more risk averse and demanded a stricter adherence to top down management systems.

This was wonderfully parodied in the 1986 Michael Keaton movie ‘Gung Ho’ (released as Working Class Man in Australia). In the following scene, the new Japanese owners of a Pennsylvania car manufacturing plant insist that the local American workers perform morning calisthenics.

It’s curious to note that the top down, Japanese ‘salaryman’ culture that was the subject of ‘Working Class Man’ was, at the same time, laying the foundations for a multi-billion-dollar console gaming industry through companies like Nintendo and Sony. However, at that time these companies were the outliers and most CEO’s were turning their attention to increasing efficiencies, minimising risk and cutting costs.

Reducing input rather than increasing output is still sadly the established orthodoxy in some larger organisations. 

No company, organisation or individual has ever become truly successful by reducing their capacity.

Enter the Millennials

Many Western leaders have been told, or are telling themselves, that we live in an ageing society. However, this statement ignores the impact that young people with higher disposable incomes have on the consumer economy.

Millennials are now the largest generation born in decades. They have seen advances in technology that have upended industries and broken oligopolies – just ask a Millennial when they last paid for music and they will almost certainly say a live concert.

Millennials also grew up during the global financial crisis and felt the effects of austerity measures introduced in its wake, leading many to question if there wasn’t a better way.

This is a generation that has known nothing but disruption, most accept it as normal, adapt and exploit it, so is it any surprise that they bring that same appetite for change to their workplace? And, is it any surprise that progressive organisations are recognising the value of their ideas?

I would argue that businesses that are embracing, encouraging and creating an intrapraneurial ecosystem for this new generation of employees and catering to a new generation of customers, are not the ones complaining about a downturn in sales.

That is not to say that all Millennials are intrapreneurs or that all intrapreneurs are Millennials. I certainly don’t think that other generations lack intrapreneurial spirit but Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers have lived and worked through the economic rationalism of past few decades and may be less inclined to put their heads above the parapet.

In my experience, intrapreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, they exist in every organisation and they can be enabled.

Identifying Intrapreneurs

When you consider that the chief difference between an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur is their employment status, it should easy to spot an intrapreneur within your organisation. They should be the ones displaying those entrepreneurial traits that I recently covered in my ‘Who and what is an Entrepreneur’ Blog post, right?

Not necessarily.

I would argue that unless you create an intrapreneurial environment, most of your entrepreneurs will remain hidden or under utilised, resulting in an incredibly useful resource left untapped. However, if you create the right environment, intrapreneurs will readily identify themselves.

10 things you can do to create an intrapreneurial culture.

  1. Hire more intrapreneurs

Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Some creatives like to work in isolation (but even then, they might credit a ‘Muse’). Creativity in business is more often a result of collaboration and inspiration and employing more intrapreneurs means more opportunities for both.

Have a look at your organisation’s last few job advertisements – do they start with a long list of duties and responsibilities followed by required formal qualifications?

If you want to attract cookie cutter candidates advertise a list of cookie cutter job descriptions, but if you want to attract intrapreneurs you will need to post more thoughtful job advertisements.

Try reversing the job description and matching the potential candidate’s strengths to the organisation’s needs. Eg;

‘the successful candidate will use the full Microsoft toolbox to engineer new solutions to old problems’

… sounds a lot more attractive to a potential intrapreneur than:

‘must be competent in Outlook, Word and Power Point, and proficient in Excel’

Remember that intrapreneurs are looking for a challenge, so appeal to their aspirations and intellect rather than their experience – try asking what they can do rather than what they have done:

‘we’re looking for someone who can take our customer service to the next level’

is better than:

‘must have 5 years’ experience in B2B sales’

2.   Encourage employees to think of themselves as partners in the business

There are many reasons why intrapreneurs don’t become entrepreneurs and it is often personal financial circumstances. While it would be easy and uncharitable to define intrapreneurs as people with great ideas who don’t want to risk their own money, that definition ignores the experience, loyalty and entrepreneurial instinct that intrapreneurs bring to an organisation. It could also be that while entrepreneurs are often driven by individualism, intrapreneurs are driven by collaboration.

If you want to develop an intrapreneurial culture, people need to feel as though they have a stake in the organisation and I think it goes without saying that this starts with trusting all employees, from the cleaner through to the Vice President. Nine times out of ten they will know how to innovate within their own area of expertise, but they must feel as though they are heard and trusted to make decisions as part of the solution.

The best way I have found to build trust is by being open and transparent with all employees by sharing relevant and important information.

I have seen company CEOs and senior executives try to hide the company’s financial position from their employees in a misguided attempt to calm fears about job losses. If you’ve ever been an employee, you will know why this is misguided.

Ask for feedback, but more importantly ask for recommendations. You would be surprised how rarely this happens, especially in large companies and rarely in organisations with a top down management culture. 

Great ideas (and solutions to problems) often come from unlikely sources. 

3.   Enable people and encourage ownership

General George S Patton famously said;

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you.”

Ownership of a project or role is one of the most important drivers of intrapreneurial behaviour. When you allow people to own their work, what you are really doing is giving permission for them to make that work the very best that they are capable of delivering. 

Taking away the back stop, or reducing an employee’s reliance on it, means that the individual assumes responsibility for their successes and failures and both of these things are key to creating an intrapreneurial environment. In my experience, this is one of the hardest things for any anyone to put into practice, but it is the main difference between being a leader and manager.

4. Provide opportunities for people to speak

This seems like an obvious thing to do, so it is surprising how few large organisations have a multi directional system of communication – even more surprising when you consider how many new ways of communicating there are. In the old days there might have been a suggestion box allowing at least bottom/up communication, but technology has made the suggestion box largely obsolete.

I will write further on the concept of a Social Enterprise Network (SEN) but for now, they are basically a social media styled intranet or a private Facebook page for all employees – allowing people to actively engage with other areas and levels of an organisation or within specific groups.

Of course, there are other ways to communicate, but make sure that if you have an ‘open door’ policy that your door is open. Quashing ideas and recommendations before they have been discussed and explored will lead to fewer ideas and recommendations.

5. Provide time, space and resources

In my last Blog post, I discussed entrepreneurs. If we look back at the definition of an entrepreneur, it’s someone who;

1. Creates and/or recognises opportunities

2. Assumes the responsibility for the risk involved in new ventures, and

3. Has the managerial skills to gather and deploy the required resources

It should be obvious, yet far too many managers of intrapreneurs stumble at this hurdle.

While entrepreneurs are able to gather and deploy the required resources, intrapreneurs are not as likely to have the authority to redirect resources such as staff and capital and likely to have less control of their own workload and time. This is an area where leaders can have an enormous impact in creating an intrapreneurial culture by simply making available the required tools.

6. Don’t try to design by committee

I spent many years in the fashion industry building a national retail chain. In the retail industry, there is a graph used to reveal the sales arc of products and it is often used by fashion buyers to determine product lifecycle and when to look for the next big thing.

The graph is called the ‘Rogers Adoption Curve’ or the ‘Diffusion Process’ and it was originally applied to agriculture and home economics. It has since been most commonly used to describe the adoption of new technology, but the principle can be applied to almost any new product or idea.

 present it here because intrapreneurs sit squarely in the 2.5% of the sample area designated innovators.

If you submit a new innovation to a committee of ten people, the best that you can hope for is that two of them (innovators and early adopters) will get it straight away and see the potential, three will understand part of it and the other five will be completely baffled.

The danger of ‘design by committee’ is when the majority are able to veto the minority. However, an even worse situation occurs when the majority aren’t able to veto so they compromise instead. This sees a new idea stripped of innovation until it resembles an old and easily recognisable idea, then it will be held up as progress and proof that the committee system works.

I think you can guess how this impacts an intrapreneurial culture.    

7. Cross functionality

Silos are the scourge of modern organisations.

Department A and B sometimes collaborate with C (usually because they have to) while department X, Y and Z have only limited contact with other departments.

While working on a previous project, a colleague described a large company who wanted to improve the organisation’s digital footprint – particularly setting up an online store.

A committee was formed with representatives from each department.

The chair of the committee was the General Manager of Human Resources while the Project Manager was a relatively junior from Marketing with little or no authority (either personal or official) to work across departments.

The project quickly descended into chaos as each representative was afforded an equal say in all aspects of the project including areas they had no experience or knowledge of.

In the end, the organisation built a portal with an online store added as an after-thought, resulting in a giant opportunity missed.

My colleague maintains that it could have been worse – they could have handed the entire project to the IT department and ended up with a website that no-one could use.

That is not say that silos cannot be broken down to enable collaboration because a great idea or innovation in one area might have disastrous effects in another, but by the same coin, other perspectives can also add significant improvements to the original.

In my experience, the best way to smash silos is not with a sledgehammer but with a smaller group that shares a common problem or goal who is afforded the authority to work across all departments and pay scales.

8. Mistakes, I’ve made a few.

I don’t entirely subscribe to the mantra of ‘fail fast and fail often’ because it implies that failure is part of the original goal. Failure is, by definition, the opposite of success and everyone should want intrapreneurs to succeed – especially the intrapreneurs themselves.

Instead, the key word is ‘mistake’ … mistakes happen and we correct them.

9. Collaboration or competition?

An intrapreneur is likely to respond well to both.

Collaboration is required for teams to work individually or across departments to draw upon collective knowledge and experience, but competition is just as important.

Healthy competition ensures that benchmarks are not only reached but reset.

10. What’s in it for me?

Recognise and celebrate the wins along the way. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t respond to recognition of their contribution.

Recognition amongst peers, raises, bonuses, promotions and even a share in the profits are all examples of rewards but not the only ones and may not be the most effective in all circumstances.

Rewards for intrapreneurs should not only reflect what they have achieved but also how they would like to be rewarded.

Think of it this way, they have spent the last few days/weeks/months pouring their energy into understanding the problem and delivering a successful outcome. They’ve sweated the big and the small stuff, knowing that their reputation and status are on the line. At the end of it a pay rise might be welcome, but it could also seem impersonal to someone who has invested more than was asked of them. 

If you are asking people to go above and beyond, be prepared to go there too – find out what motivates them and if you still don’t know, ask.

What’s in it for you?

When organisations create an intrapreneurial environment, where people are given a genuine opportunity to think, create and transform, employees become more enthusiastic and engaged which in turn leads to productivity increases. It’s then easier to attract and retain valuable people and skill sets.

Yet, there is another compelling reason why is important to embrace greater entrepreneurial thinking with your organisation – disruption.

I will cover disruption in my next Blog post but for now – disruption is the single biggest threat to every business.

For many years, the biggest threat to most businesses was competitors with cheaper prices – a relatively easy problem to counter, but over the last decade or so it has been competitors with better ideas.

Disrupting your own business (before someone does it for you) by attracting, retaining and enabling intrapreneurs might be your best option for your organization to survive and thrive.

Visit https://www.martinhaese.com/blog/ for further guidance, insight and inspiration.

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