I am a planning engineer based in Arup’s...
Intrapreneurship is about encouraging employees of big corporations to behave as if they were entrepreneurs. It’s something that lots of big players including Google, Apple and Intel use to produce innovation. And it’s something that depends on having the right kind of employees and the right kind of workplace and culture.
Why does all this matter? Because, applying Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics to this context; if big companies are not “busy with being born; they are busy with dying”. Even market leaders will be overtaken if they’re too slow to create or adopt new ideas. Like Blackberry and Nokia, corporate giants can easily lose their way.
Companies that foster intrapreneurship try to avoid this by allowing their employees to spend 10-20% of their time on innovative projects or research unrelated to their roles. It’s an approach that works and has helped produce products like the Apple Macintosh and Google AdSense.
So how exactly do you foster this in an organisation?
1. The right people
Well, the first step is to ensure that you have the right employees. A good rule of thumb, which comes from Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, is always to hire people who are smarter than you, because smart people are even more important than good ideas.
You need employees with plenty of potential. Some companies judge candidates on their experience rather than their potential. What people know and what they have done so far shouldn’t be more important than what they will learn and accomplish in the future – intrapreneurship is all about inventing the future.
2. The right culture
Secondly, successful intrapreneurship depends on the organisational culture. Innovation cannot thrive unless people at all levels – even interns – feel they’re allowed to suggest ideas.
For example, Google has an internal platform called “Internal Labs” where employees can suggest innovative ideas and give or receive feedback from alongside 20,000 colleagues. Successful ideas are rewarded with a Google Founders’ Award that varies from a thousand to a million dollars
To encourage innovation, leaders and managers need to permit decision-making and risk-taking at even the lowest levels. And they must see failure as a natural consequence of doing or trying new things, rather than something to be prevented at all costs.
The Vice Chairman of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. Jeff Stibel has a good of rule of thumb that helps him embrace failure and turn it into a medium for success: he never hires people who have never failed. His company even has a failure wall in the office which all employees inscribe with a time when they failed, stating what they learned.
3. The right environment
Lastly, the physical environment plays a role too. Poorly designed workplaces impede the exchange of ideas and collaboration, especially when employees are spread across different floors (and when all the managers are based on the top floor).
A better workplace encourages chance meetings and interaction. Steve Jobs’ passion for the design of Apple’s new building was a great example; it will house 13,000 people including designers and engineers in a circular four-storey glass building with a massive 90,000-square-foot cafeteria. The inner and outer rims of each floor will be left open as walkways, allowing employees to circulate around the ring, triggering spontaneous meetings and promoting collaboration.
With the right people, the right culture and the right workplace I believe any organisation can harness intrapreneurship to generate new ideas and innovations.