Intrapreneurship: How to cultivate it in your company so you can take big bets and win
A lot of people think that to get “intrapreneurship” all you have to do is hire someone who has started a company before. This assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In reality, intrapreneurship is something that must be cultivated. Anyone, in theory, can become an intrapreneur when they take on additional projects at work or uniquely solve problems. In order to get there, though, certain conditions must be met.
To put the necessary environment for intrapreneurship into an easy metaphor: you can’t build a house without a foundation. If you do, the walls are more likely to cave in and the roof won’t be steady. Intrapreneurship is building the house – you need to have a foundation set first.
Those who are successful at creating the right environment for intrapreneurship will win, and win big. Intrapreneurship and its associated project management skills are frequently noted in research on the future of work, indicating companies that cultivate intrapreneurship have the strongest chance of thriving in the ever-changing workplace.
Transparency is the holy grail of intrapreneurship
When someone owns a business, they have all the available information. Employees, on the other hand, typically don’t. They are not shown sensitive corporate materials or, in some cases, given any information outside of their role or department.
To cultivate intrapreneurship, managers and executives must treat transparency as the holy grail.
Why transparency is important
Creativity, a hallmark of the intrapreneur, comes from knowing all the available information and all the known obstacles. From there, the intrapreneur can identify creative or novel solutions to problems. While obstacles are typically shared, withholding information because someone is “just an employee” or “not senior enough” holds back creativity.
Transparency not only breeds trust, it increases innovation because information isn’t hiding – more people have more information, making problem solving more intuitive and successful.
How to be more transparent
For the manager or executive: In a kickoff meeting with your intrapreneur, share everything you know about the topic, including all obstacles and challenges (i.e. why the project isn’t already launched and successful, done by someone else). If the information is particularly sensitive, consider an additional non-disclosure agreement for the project.
For the intrapreneur: Come with a list of questions that cover the vision of the project, the target outcome (measurement), and who the project is meant to serve. From there, ask explicitly about obstacles that you may come up against so you can prepare for any non-negotiable issues and get creative.
Autonomy gives intrapreneurs the ability to work
Micromanagement kills creativity. When an intrapreneur gets to work, they need the same kind of autonomy that an entrepreneur has – that is, they have to be able to try, fail, and set their own path.
With a boss constantly scrutinizing every action or criticizing each step, intrapreneurship crumbles. This is because intrapreneurship thrives on the opportunity to work, learn, and lead, things that micromanagement hinders.
In particular, autonomy helps intrapreneurship because it allows people to “go down rabbit holes” of unique or novel ideas and test them out.
How to become more comfortable with autonomy
For the manager or executive: Setting up-front expectations and sharing all key information + obstacles will help you give your intrapreneur more autonomy. If you’re new to letting people work autonomously or your company culture doesn’t usually empower it yet, break up the project into smaller milestones and let the intrapreneur work milestone-to-milestone with regular check-ins.
For the intrapreneur: If your manager is not comfortable with the idea of autonomous work and you’re making a case for it, encourage regular communication. Autonomy doesn’t mean you work completely alone – consider a weekly or bi-weekly check in so you can give them full status updates, reports on progress or roadblocks, and take in their ideas or feedback. That way you get more autonomy but they are not completely out of the loop.
Parameters can supercharge creativity
Similar to obstacles that may come up during the project kick-off, disclosing parameters has the ability to supercharge intrapreneurship. A parameter is anything that can’t happen, for example a regulatory issue or other legal requirement. Parameters will be different for different industries, but are necessary nonetheless for a variety of reasons.
Instead of shying away from parameters, disclose them and get them out in the open. When parameters are known, intrapreneurs can become more creative.
Why creativity helps intrapreneurs
- They won’t spend time on solutions that simply can’t work due to parameters
- They can focus on ways around certain parameters in order to get to a goal
There’s even a team benefit: less wasted time. In the process of innovation, knowing what you can’t do is almost as important as knowing what you can do since constraints breed creativity.
For the manager or executive, disclose all parameters in kick-off meetings as part of being transparent. If necessary, have the intrapreneur chat with legal or outside counsel to discuss any specific problems they may face.
For the intrapreneur, keep in mind that a parameter does not mean you can’t innovate in that area. On the contrary, it’s a fixed obstacle for you to overcome or work around.
Support scales intrapreneurship
One incorrect assumption about intrapreneurship is that you can give them a task, say “Go!” and they will deliver. The reality is that intrapreneurs need support and cover in order to be truly successful.
Support and cover comes in a variety of ways, but it’s primarily about helping the intrapreneur get the resources they need to successfully complete a project.
How to support intrapreneurship
For managers and executives, provide support and cover by being a(n):
- Obstacle bulldozer: using your seniority to clear a path
- Problem umbrella: shielding the intrapreneur from issues at the top of the company
- Super connector: connecting intrapreneurs to the people they need to know
- Credibility lender: using your position and title to cultivate support for the intrapreneur’s work
- Intrapreneurship advocate: use your voice to support the project, even during the rough times, to remind people of the huge potential it carries
Above all, be willing to listen to the intrapreneur to help with problems as they arise.
For the intrapreneur, make sure you’re asking for what you need. Be clear with your manager or executive if you need some help. Typically, this is done by explaining what you hoped to accomplish and what’s stopping you.
It will be difficult to not come across as complaining or whining in this instance, but the more you stick to the facts, the better off you’ll be.
Incentives keep intrapreneurs working hard
Entrepreneurs start companies for either the opportunity make impact or the opportunity to make bank – or both. Since intrapreneurs share many traits with entrepreneurs, they too need incentives to keep them going.
While the challenge of the project may be good enough for many people (or good enough to start), other incentives need to be included somewhere along the line in order to keep intrapreneurship thriving in your company. If there are no incentives for intrapreneurship, employees will be less likely to step up over the long-term.
Types of incentives for intrapreneurs
Bonuses and other financial incentives
If the project that an intrapreneur is working on ties directly to money, they should capture some of the value. This could be in the form of a lump bonus for performance or in the form of a percentage of revenues.
When someone does a great job, let people know! There are many ways to recognize an employee, privately and publicly, that lets them know they’ve done a great job. This also lets others in the company know that intrapreneurship is valued.
Be careful, though, as recognition alone will seem fake over time if nothing else good actually happens to intrapreneurs at the company.
If someone is consistently providing value and solving problems, they could very well be a candidate for promotion. This could mean:
- A higher role in their department
- A lateral and vertical move in the organization
- A higher seniority of their current role (e.g. “Senior Analyst” instead of just “Analyst”)
Of course, a promotion should also come with both a pay bump and responsibility bump, otherwise it’s just a fake title.
Cultivating intrapreneurship is straightforward
When a company works to cultivate intrapreneurship, it’s usually for two reasons: they want employees to have more meaningful work and they want to create more profit. Usually, creating more meaningful work for employees leads to more profit, so the two goals are connected.
It’s not a bad thing to work for profit, that’s why people have jobs in the first place. But companies can’t expect employees to take on intrapreneurial projects without the right foundation. Creating the right foundation, though, leads to prosperity for all involved. The company makes more money and the intrapreneur gets career (and financial) rewards. It’s a win-win.