I have worked with intrapreneurs that try to do everything at the same time. They try to launch new products in multiple divisions, change the hearts and minds of leaders, host a tonne of events and run workshops to train everyone in innovation skills. Intrapreneurs that work in this way and are the most stressed out people I have ever met. They are spread too thin and are having little impact on their company. If everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.
To succeed, intrapreneurs need to take the long view. It takes time to design and implement the right structures, processes and capabilities for innovation. So you need to be patient. However, it is also important to recognize the need to build your credibility. You will not last very long in the job if people keep questioning whether you have the ability to create a positive business impact.
So even if you take the long view, you have to begin by doing the things that have an early impact. To survive long term you need to have early wins to build credibility. The early choices you make must be designed to earn you the goodwill you need within the company to be allowed to get to keep working on innovation.
You have to start small, get early wins and spread those success stories throughout the organization. This is the only way to ensure that your innovation work is sustainable in the long term.
RESIST THE LURE OF THE LONG TERM PLAN
When beginning our work, it not advisable to develop detailed plans and roadmaps. I have worked with innovation teams that make detailed implementation plans early. What these teams hate the most is when I tell them that none of what they have on their roadmap will happen as they expect!
Here is what I have learned from experience. As much as we treat our companies as if they are mechanical structures and process, they are organic living things. Companies are ultimately made up of the people that work there and the decisions those people make. Believe it or not, these people will not automatically bend to your will. They will respond to your interventions in unexpected ways.
In one situation I was involved in, our best made plans fell apart when we sent out our first emails to the people we wanted to work with. Many of these people got back to us informing us that they wanted to work with us on innovation, but due to some pressing deadlines they could not engage with us at the time.
This should not have been surprising to our team. It is not like the people in our company were sitting around waiting for our innovation project to begin. They have jobs to do! And the demands of their jobs were getting in the way of whatever we had planned.
To paraphrase Steve Blank, even the best made innovation plans will not survive their first contact with your company. You will need to work in a way that allows you the flexibility to respond to the unexpected. When you start small, you limit the number of moving pieces and this allows you to learn about what works.
IGNORE YOUR DETRACTORS
The human mind is highly tuned to respond to negative stimuli. Bad news travels faster than good news. Research on loss aversion shows that the positive bounce from good news is not as high as the negative dip from bad news. This is why people are advised to never look at the value of their shares on the stock market on a daily basis. They will feel really low on a down day and the positive uplift on a good day will not compensate for those negative feelings.
In life, people pay more attention to their detractors than they do to their supporters. This is important for survival. Identifying an enemy was originally a life and death issue. While this might be a great instinct for surviving out in the real world, it is not healthy for an intrapreneur. We do want to know where we might face challenges within our company, but we don’t want to make our detractors the main focus of our work.
I have worked with some intrapreneurs that pick fights with their detractors in the hope of convincing or defeating them. But if you do this, you have picked a direct fight with the corporate machine. In my whole career, I have never met an innovator who has won that fight. It is career suicide to even try this.
There is a better way to turn detractors into allies. Show them the value you are able to create for the company. The only way to show this value is to work closely with people within the company who are on your side at the moment. These are your early adopters.
START WITH EARLY ADOPTERS
The salience of detractors can make intrapreneurship feel like a lonely pursuit. However, this feeling is totally misguided. In every large company I have worked with, there are people that want to innovate at every level. There are product teams that are eager to use lean startup methods. There are also leaders who get it and are looking for allies to work with to drive innovation within the company.
These people are your early adopters. They are the ones that will work with you while you develop your approach. They will tolerate your mistakes and root for your success. But how do you find them? Within lean startup, an early adopter is defined as a customer who has a problem, is aware of having that problem, has been actively looking for a solution, has tried to put together a solution themselves and has or can acquire a budget.
The same principles apply to your search for early adopters within your company. The majority of the work I have done has been commissioned by leaders who:
- Understand that the world is changing and their company is not well suited to adapt to emerging trends.
- Are acutely aware that their company has a deficit in the innovation capability needed to survive in the future.
- Have been actively looking for solutions – which is partly why they have reached out to me.
- Before they started talking to me, had already sponsored some internal innovation activities (e.g. hackathons or idea competitions).
- Have the resources to invest and are prepared to make a time commitment to innovation.
Leaders and teams with these five characteristics are the ones you are looking to start working with; not the detractors. Early adopters are your allies – and you don’t have to do the hard work of convincing them to work with you.
Working with early adopters is great for two reasons. First, it allows you to move fast early because you don’t have to do a lot of selling. These people are super keen to work with you. Second, it allows you to test your innovation tools and methods in a safe space to make mistakes and learn – with people who are not looking to tear you down.
But the biggest benefit of working with early adopters is that it allows you to get some early wins. When you get these wins, you need to celebrate like crazy. Tell every leader in the company your success story. This is the way you can build your credibility and start to influence your detractors.