What image comes to your mind when you think of the word “entrepreneur”? Many of us will visualize youthful, creative fanatics on a solo mission to change the world. It took me by surprise 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 aspiring self-published authors to refine 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 internal entrepreneur, an intrapreneur at Macmillan Publishers where she started a new business program called Swoon Reads (now Thrive Reads) to connect aspiring authors and publishers. When I learned of her story, I realized there had to be thousands of others like her, innovators dreaming up and activating new ideas and business models inside of larger companies. I set out to determine whether Jean was the exception or the rule. My research study of 120 internal innovators and the most transformative innovations over the past 30 years proved that innovators like Jean are no exception. Seventy percent of these most impactful innovations came from corporate intrapreneurs like Jean. They are not an anomaly; they are the rule.
Ideas are not born from companies. They come from the individuals working inside them. The reason we associate entrepreneurship with innovative ideas is not because entrepreneurs are smarter, work harder, or have some unique fortune. It’s because entrepreneurs and their budding companies have not yet built up the barriers known for stopping good ideas in their tracks.
Many large companies find that, as they’ve scaled, the fire of entrepreneurship dwindles. They react by hiring college grads, entrepreneurs, and creative types, but this is not the right solution. They should instead address the organizational hierarchies, values, incentives, politics, and bureaucratic red tape that pump the brakes on creativity.
Through that same research study, I found that there are seven steps and corresponding barriers along the path of an internal innovator. They are: Intent, Need, Options, Value Blockers, Action, Team, and Environment—together they form the acronym I-N-O-V-A-T-E. These hurdles can support or hinder your best ideas and efforts. They are the key areas you need to focus on, whether you want to push your best ideas ahead in your company or act as a leader who wants to set your own teams up for success.
As an employee, how do you begin to recognize and motivate yourself to act on intrapreneurial opportunities? And as a leader, how do you inspire the intent to innovate in your employees? Francesca Gino, the author of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life, says that we are all born curious, but the reason why people tend not to voice their ideas is that they fear judgement. She explains, “Judgement and curiosity cannot coexist.”
Gino recommends baking curiosity into the way you propose ideas. Rather than coming to the table with an innovation and asking people to hop on board, say, “I’m curious why we’re not considering X.” You’ll open up an engaging conversation and avoid judgement. 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-oriented metrics that encourage people to be curious, which will ultimately activate their intent to find new, better ways to perform their jobs.
Would-be 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 a creative innovation. But most often, it’s not the idea that is the problem. Rather, it’s the employee’s lack of understanding of what the market needs and what fits with the organization’s strategy. Tendayi Viki, corporate innovation expert and author of Pirates in the Navy, explains the reason that corporate innovators fail is because they’ve placed themselves into an antagonistic relationship with the organization: “The ultimate skill of the corporate innovator is the ability to build connections between whatever they’re working on and where their organization is,” Viki says. “If they can’t build that bridge, they cannot succeed as a corporate innovator.”
On the other hand, leaders hold the responsibility of developing a clear strategy and communicating it to their employees. Adam Bryant, author of The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders, suggests a four-part method he learned from Dinesh Paliwal, former CEO of Harman International:
Once you’ve gotten into the innovation mindset and have developed familiarity with your organization’s strategy, how do you conceive of a truly disruptive idea? It comes down to the number of interesting options you can generate. I interviewed Gary Hamel, one of the most influential thought leaders in business and management, who said, “Your chance of landing on a truly game-changing strategy is arithmetically determined by the number of potential options you create in the first place.” Whether you’re an employee or the leader of a company, you’ll need a process for generating hundreds of ideas every year. Hamel recommends starting with customer insights to find out what trends are changing and what pain points customers are talking about.
In an organization, there is a natural resistance to innovative ideas because new ideas often bump up against the company’s core business model. 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. That increases the likelihood of success.”
Additionally, Rob Wolcott, founder of The World Innovation Network (TWIN), proposes when the timing for a new innovation is uncertain, or you are unsure as to how it will play out, consider creating a transitional business model. Netflix did this by delivering movies via mail until internet speeds and adoption were sufficiently fast and wide. Learning to think creatively about the business model around your innovation opens opportunities to reduce the risk of rejection by, for example, choosing a transitional model that complements your company’s existing business model.
Established organizations often ask employees to prove an idea will work before giving permission to take action. This puts would-be internal innovators in a Catch-22: They can’t take action so they can’t prove their idea will work so they can’t take action. Liz Wiseman, executive adviser and author of Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact, explains that the employees who make the biggest impact devise ways to take the lead and move ideas forward by taking an “ask and adjust” approach.
Don’t wait until your idea is fully baked—rather, take small actions. To see if your idea is on target, get feedback and evolve the idea before the final stage when you formally present it. You can take action earlier if you learn to conduct frugal experiments as Fast Company contributor Navi Radjou recommends.
Rigid corporate hierarchies are known for stamping out internal innovation. Successful intrapreneurs recognize that pursuing new ideas requires failing fast and learning. They pull together cross-functional teams that move quickly and are geared toward 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 learned 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 phases of innovation. You’ll form and lead teams that are more open to learning, acting quickly, and iterating based on results.
Finding support for innovative ideas in a company is politically complicated because the structures and norms that help established organizations operate also tend to hinder creativity. David Schonthal, author of The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas, explains that most people make the mistake of focusing on fuel: highlighting the value of the idea in the form of features, benefits, or messaging. Surprisingly, this is much less effective in changing people’s minds than reducing the frictions that oppose change.
To convince people to support your idea, find out which of these frictions is holding them back:
Once you’ve identified the friction standing in your way, you’ll know where to focus on reducing it.
To improve their chances at innovation, corporations don’t need to hire more entrepreneurs. They need to leverage the creativity and ideas of their internal innovators. The seven barriers in the I-N-O-V-A-T-E 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 undoubtedly waiting inside your organization, direct your efforts to these key areas to improve your chances of innovation success.