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Some time back Thierry got a call from the CEO, “Thierry, I have a problem.” At the time Thierry was the CTO so he was surprised the CEO was calling him with this particular problem. The problem was the company was going through restructuring, acquisitions and mergers, and so on and so forth,” and so the CEO said, “My employee base is demotivated. They don’t see where we are going. You need to give me the light at the end of the tunnel.” Thierry had ideas about entrepreneurship looking at what startups in Silicon Valley were doing, and this is when they assembled a team and started working on these ideas.

Thierry shares his journey of intrapreneurship which started twelve years ago at Alcatel-Lucent. The learnings and wrong assumptions that he shares are based on his experience but also from talking with other companies that faced similar challenges.

Things that went wrong:

#1: Picking venture staff from the high potential list

Thierry’s assumption was to use top talent to be the intrapreneurs of the company. When he explained his idea to them they all thought it was a great idea, but when Thierry asked them to raise their hands if they wanted to participate, no one did. Nobody.

These fellows are great corporate citizens, they follow known paths and processes that will lead them to their next big promotion, and they are also risk-averse; they don’t look for opportunities to “fail”.

#2: Focusing too much on ideas

There are plenty of ideas. Especially in a big corporation, there are plenty of people with plenty of ideas. The problem is having breakthrough ideas.

Breakthrough ideas are the ones that can potentially disrupt, even your own business – and that is not a bad thing because if you won’t do it someone else will.

When you open up for any idea, or carry idea competitions, you end up with the funniest of ideas. So it’s important to focus on the purpose and vision of your company, try to specify the area where you want to see innovative ideas.

#3: Believing that an entrepreneur can easily become an intrapreneur

Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are not the same. While an entrepreneur has an idea, and can go to friends and family for some money, and partner up with people from her network to start developing the product, an intrapreneur has an idea and then needs to go through the stage gates, processes, and rules to get approvals. So the intrapreneurs is busy showing presentation to all the different layers until she can get to the one source of money: the CFO. And then when she gets her money she needs to go to HR to build a team, and they have their own processes and compensation packages that may or may not fit.

#4: Believing that everyone can be entrepreneurial

After trying to work with high potential, and later with (external) entrepreneurs, and seeing both fail, Thierry tried taking the approach of “anyone can be an entrepreneur”. The assumption was that everyone wants to be part of a new initiative as an opportunity to grow.

But at the end of the day, not everybody has what it takes in her genes. Entrepreneurship cannot be learnt. The best thing you can do is let the real entrepreneurial people emerge. You can do that by organizing a boot camp, where employees (outside of their normal working hours) generate idea and build a business opportunity plans. Then you can to see the real entrepreneurial behavior and passion surface.

#5: Carrying intrapreneurial efforts in a stealth mode

The assumption was to let teams work silently, which means not involving too many people because in this way work can be done faster and in a more agile way. If you include too many people you also get a lot of opinions and that may lead to extra obstacles.

The problem is once the team got their product together, and they abruptly surface with it to the mothership, they face very shocked reactions of what the heck is this group doing. Sometimes, it can even be seen as competition, and then the corporate immune system is activated.

What should be done:

#1: Drive must come from the top

If the CEO and the executive committee is not backing you up then intrapreneurship not going to work. They are the ones who set the purpose and the vision of the company. If you want to involve intrapreneurs, they need to know where the focus is, and they need to feel part of the vision and the purpose. It wont benefit the company to focus on  ideas which are not relevant or way too far from the core business.

Accepting, and even celebrating failure also has to come from the top:

intrapreneurs need to know that their backs are covered by management.

#2: Create a culture of risk-taking

People need to know that when they try something new they may fail sometimes. Failure has to be an option.

#3: Create an environment where the entrepreneur can thrive

Such an environment needs to be fast and agile, without letting bureaucracy block fast decision-making. That means also allowing rules to be bent for the right reasons.

Again, it is essential to have support from the top but also from middle management. Middle management is in charge of seeing through the performance of the usual business, without their support it would be very difficult to get their people on board for innovative projects.

#5: Work with the current business and celebrate small wins

you need to make intrapreneurial efforts visible to the rest of the company. One way to communicate these efforts is by celebrating them. Even celebrating small steps like achieving the first milestone. Let employees talk and socialize about it. But again don’t forget to also celebrate failures!

To recap, these are the seven takeaways that Thierry offers based on his extensive experience:

  1. Intrapreneurial drive must come from the top.
  2. Create a culture of risk taking.
  3. Go for breakthrough ideas in line with your vision and purpose.
  4. Create an environment where intrapreneurs can thrive.
  5. Organize entrepreneurial boot camps.
  6. Contain your intrapreneurial efforts.
  7. Liaise with current business and celebrate success.

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