Intrapreneurs: Look Before You Leap


Intrapreneurship is hard work.

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy everyone would do it.” Okay, so Tom Hanks wasn’t talking about Intrapreneurship when he said this in A League of Their Own, but it probably applies. Intrapreneurship is hard work.

Intrapreneurship is the combination of “tools, methods and processes for improving and accelerating the innovation cycle in an established business, making sure you create products and services consumers actually want. Intrapreneurship is about creating the environment, culture and structures for your employees to be entrepreneurial and developing the capabilities required to do so.”

These days, companies know that they can’t rest on their laurels.

The products and services that have gotten them to where they are now may not propel them into the future. Action is needed but how do they generate ideas, select the right ones and make them come alive?

This is why companies want intrapreneurs. With the results generated from engaged employees, companies can grow the bottom line organically. Intrapreneurs have their own motivations as well. With their entrepreneurial spirit, they may want to build something innovative, maybe its an incremental improvement or maybe it’s truly transformational, and maybe it’s even something socially responsible for the company.

Some of the challenges that the intrapreneurs face in this light are fairly clear. Identifying the new idea, building and prototyping, finding and securing a market and making sales are all hard work. However, there is another type of challenge that intrapreneurs must face, and that is one within their own company.

Once an idea is formed, it is just the beginning; the intrapreneur must then carry the project forward and jump many organizational hurdles placed in the way.

But why is this type of challenge not always obvious?

The organizational hurdles that the Intrapreneur faces can be concealed in the gaps of the innovation cycle, regardless of the process that the company uses to bring innovations forward, or how pro-innovation that the company might be. There are two main factors which, when combined, create some all-familiar questions.

The first reason is that innovation requires a deviation from normal business practices.

When Clayton Christensen published “The Innovators Dilemma” in 1997, he outlined the strategic challenges that large established organizations face with innovation beyond the core business. He says that sustaining business relies on a few qualities that actually conflict with a firm’s ability to innovate. These include driving new products based on customer feedback, using forecasts to allocate investments, and minimizing risk of failure.

All of these items work well for sustaining business, but not for truly innovating.

Christensen used the disk drive industry to prove an example of these points. In the case of smaller drives, the established disk drive companies developed the new technology and created physically smaller drives, which at first had less capacity.

But when they followed standard process and asked their customers about the smaller drives, the customers weren’t interested. Their current customers wanted more storage and already had the slot size build into their current product. They interpreted this feedback to mean that a market for these smaller drives isn’t worth pursuing.

As a result, rather than find the right market (which may be new and difficult to forecast), the established companies focused incremental improvements serving their core customers. It took new entrants offering smaller drives that fit into personal computers built by new players to prove that there was a market outside the traditional customer base. Those entrants started moving upmarket as the rest of the industry saw the appeal and eventually put some of the original established companies out of business.

The companies that comprise the disk drive industry are just one example of those that have had challenges in innovation, even though they were following the ‘correct’ processes for their core business.

To successfully innovate, businesses may need to go against the ideas and the processes that are ‘right’ for the core business, and the intrapreneur is the one taking the lead.

The second reason is that the ‘process’ of bringing an idea to reality lends itself to repetitive questioning.

Of course, to make your innovation a reality, you need some ideas and engaged employees to work them, but you also need some form of idea-to-market process. These processes can vary greatly by industry, company size, culture, maturity, etc.. They may be formalized and very visible, offsite in labs, or flying-under-the-radar, being worked quietly in the company until help is needed.

In any case, this process eventually requires a checkpoint with the senior team.

Even with the most innovation forward processes, where intrapreneurs have autonomy, space to fail and recognition for what they do, there is still a connection with the company – a checkpoint (or checkpoints) as the process transitions.

It is at these checkpoints where the intrapreneur is challenged and failure may become defined in an official “no”.

Here, the strategic uncertainties outlined by Christensen arise in the form of tactical challenges like these:

• If it isn’t a “fit” with the core business, there may be resistance to get the project started, or to keep it moving to a final stage

• Long-term, uncertain revenue projects are difficult to ‘sell’ and hard to keep funded

• The intrapreneur and the sponsor may be using all of their political capital to push this through

So when these two reasons are combined, the intrapreneur may hear messages like:


Unfortunately, these types of questions are not asked just once.

The new venture may be challenged multiple times and the intrapreneur must be prepared to respond.

This makes intrapreneurship hard work. Beyond the idea creation and taking a product to market (which are difficult tasks in themselves), the intrapreneur must navigate organizational challenges day in, day out.

So, what to do?

To help you get past the checkpoint challenges, we asked several intrapreneurs with years of practical experience across a variety of industries how they did it.

Their advise for tackling these issues revealed very common themes – regardless of the company culture, the specific process model used, or the type of innovation or industry being worked.


Here’s what they had to say:


#1: Understand the Culture and Prepare your Organization If Possible

Each company’s innovation culture is different. Make sure that you understand yours so you can use the right approach to tackle challenges in your organization. Create a structure that is appropriate for your company and that you can work within to help tackle the problems above.

Your company might have a structured intrapreneurship program or an annual innovation competition. Your company might partner with local accelerators and work with start-ups. Or your company may know that they must innovate to survive, but use processes that resist change. In any of these cases, understanding the environment is critical to moving forward efficiently.

Craig Haney, Director of Corporate Innovation at Communitech, an accelerator in Kitchener-Waterloo, Canada, recommends beginning with an assessment, then building a governance structure that suits your company.

“Start by giving yourself the advantage with an innovation readiness audit and show your readiness by department.

Create an Intrapreneurship Council. They must own the implementation process, the people, the transfer of the idea into operations and attach it all to critical business outcomes.”

He says that agreeing to a process in the company beforehand will lead to smoother transitions as the idea matures.

Matthias Fuchs, Innovation Leader Corporate Strategy and Development at Boehringer Ingelheim recommends that when setting up the program in your business to, “implement lean decision making. This will help navigate the complex decision making processes that are prevalent in large corporations.”

Creating a lean process (in both decisions and activities) will help the idea progress as efficiently as possible.


#2: Prototype and Show Wins

Create prototypes, outside the walls of the office if you can. Show the results in a way that relate directly to the needs of the business. Use this data to prepare responses to the questions above.

In the innovation program at Mazars, David Nosibor, Innovation Promoter, saw first-hand how vital it was to get the innovation team off-site as they developed a new financial application. The team was placed next to entrepreneurs in an accelerator with a goal of creating a minimum viable product, along with a pitch. By being side-by-side with entrepreneurs, the team was able to ask questions, share ideas, and begin to act like a start-up as they built their minimum viable product. He recommends to “get the innovation team offsite. The team can learn a lot by working next to other start-ups, and not be distracted by their day jobs.”

Through her experience at Google, Jennifer Holland, Program Manager for Google Apps for Education has seen the benefits of building the prototype. Creating this prototype allows the intrapreneur to gather data, to learn and to improve:

“Don’t propose anything without research, data and insights, and make sure to prototype and pilot. Then, surface when necessary and point back to your wins to show success.”

#3: Build a Strong Support Network and Secure a Sponsor

These people are vital to your success and will help you with roadblocks, political needs, and even emotional support. The intrapreneurs interviewed couldn’t stress the importance of a support network enough.

This includes a variety of champions, not limited to people to energize you when times are tough, people to remove roadblocks, people to provide resources and people to learn from.

Through his experiences at Barclays, Tim Heard, VP Corporate Change, says that one of the most important things is to remember that there are people throughout your company that will support you throughout the process.  “Build a good support network.  It is important to know that you are not alone.   Create cheerleaders and keep them!”

They can help you through the hard times of not only getting the project rolling, but later, as you need to prove the viability again and again.  He even recommends bringing your cheerleaders with you to key meetings if appropriate.

“Build the network, even when you don’t need it.” adds Jennifer Holland.

It may take months or years before you need support, but with the network in place you can use the support when the time is right.  Remember that it must be the right network: “Find the right teams and champions.  They are not only investing in the idea, but the people working it.”

At Boehringer Ingelheim, Matthias Fuchs is responsible for strategic innovation.   Though the company’s focus is the pharmaceutical industry, he networks across industries and specialties to bring the best resources to the table.

He says,  “Don’t be afraid to build alliances across industries and even with someone you might consider a competitor.  Reach outside your area.  The network can’t be big enough.”


#4: Keep on Campaigning

Be ready to tell your story over and over again so that you are heard. Make sure the story is relevant and includes your successes.

Ideally for the intrapreneur, your company culture has innovation at the forefront and has realistic expectations on the number of wins and the trial and error process.   Or perhaps your company is driven by short term profit maximization and expects your project to perform quickly.

In any case, the intrapreneur needs to understand how the new endeavor relates to the metrics that drive the organization so that they can communicate efficiently.

Tim Heard says, “Tell a good story.  Find where the company is struggling and then show what this innovation means.” For him, that meant tying his communications to company KPI’s and strategic goals. Because of this, he was speaking the same language as the executive team.

Once you have your story, keep practicing your pitch. Continue to refine and improve it because at some point you may face resistance (i.e. those ‘hard questions’ above). In his experience at Mazars, David Nosibor found that he could tackle this resistance by campaigning to his network outside the organization.

He says, “There is power in external communications.  If people outside the company show interest, then people inside will start to question any resistance, even if the bottom line is uncertain.” Through the use of social media and customer involvement, he saw that a public backing provided additional leverage to help overcome any internal resistance.

Similarly at Barclays, Tim Heard fought resistance by campaigning to the network he had built inside the organization. “Maybe it’s the boss’s boss, the respected colleague or the personal assistant to the chief.   Remember that there is power in these relationships.   When they buy-in, suddenly your resistor will want to buy in too.”


#5: Be Smart with your Resources – Before, During and After!

While entrepreneurs may need to bootstrap, intrapreneurs need to be efficient in how they leverage company resources, and ultimately how they are incorporated back in to the ‘day jobs’.

At Google, Jennifer Holland knows that she will need to be efficient with her resources. She recommends that intrapreneurs “use your resources intelligently. Be frugal. Be creative with finding resources and be cross-functional (it lends yourself to getting more resources).”

This helps get the ball rolling, but it also helps once a project is “sanctioned” within the company.

Craig Rhinehart, Director of IBM Watson Health Innovation and Market Development, reminds us how critical it is to have the right resources: “There is a shortage of intrapreneurial skills in large organizations and ultimately without the right skills and a strong leader any intrapreneurial effort is significantly put at risk.”

It is important to continue to nurture these skills in your employees, and when it comes time to work your project, selecting those with the right skill set is extremely important.

During his time working on an innovation project at Barclays, David Spears has experienced the challenge of balancing ‘day jobs’ and the time spent on the project. For his team members, it meant that the operational role would sometimes overtake the innovation project in terms of priority. As a result he recommends to keep the long term impact in mind: “In an understaffed team you need to keep sight that what you are doing has a much wider impact. If there is not enough focus from direct management, go to the believers and that will trickle back.”

He also makes sure that employees are looked after as the project comes to completion. “Companies are keen to push the idea that ‘everyone is an intrapreneur’, but not realizing that they need to reintegrate into their role after its through. Once you experience this as an employee, going back to the day job can be tough. If it is truly an intrapreneurial company, the difference between the innovation and the day job is not so far removed.”


#6: Be Passionate. Do what makes you happy

Finally, the last recommendation comes from Jennifer Holland at Google. She explains that as you maneuver through the challenges that are part of the process it is important to make sure that you are passionate about what you are doing. She says, “do something that you care about. If you are happy, your colleagues notice.”

This passion can infect your team members, your champions, and even your resistors. It will help through the ups and downs as you take your idea through commercialization.


[ DOWNLOAD 1-PAGE SUMMARY: The Intrapreneur’s Checklist for Tackling Organizational Challenges ]

Intrapreneurship is great for business, but for the intrapreneur, it is not an easy road.

The established organizational processes that work well for the core business often work against innovation, and the intrapreneur takes a career risk in pursuing these new ventures as they are challenged again and again. And again.

Look before you leap, but don’t wait too long and get started. Of course, you will face challenges and obstacles, but it’s part of the game. And most importantly, enjoy the ride!


Dara2This is a post by Dara Miller, who is working on her PhD in International Business with a specialty in Intrapreneurship.   In addition to consulting, she has held innovation leadership positions in the telecommunications industry.

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