Corporate innovation is slowly becoming a profession. Becoming an intrapreneur is increasingly a realistic career option for a number of people. But this does not mean that life as a corporate innovator has become easier. The challenges of innovating within a large company are still immense. Intrapreneurs are still more like pioneers creating an emerging space for future innovators to thrive. Such work requires special kinds of people that combine a rare mix of ability, humility and tenacity.
Over the last few years, I have worked with several innovation teams within large corporations. I have observed intrapreneurs at work. I have seen many innovators fail to have a lasting impact on their companies and only a few succeed. The success stories have taught me some key characteristics that intrapreneurs need to have in order to do well in corporate environments. Below I describe four key characteristics:
This is perhaps the most important characteristic for an intrapreneur to have. I often remind intrapreneurs that they are not Elon Musk and they don’t work in a company full of idiots. Intrapreneurs that are brash and over-confident easily make enemies in an environment that is already geared up to resist innovation. Trying to innovate in a large company is difficult enough without unnecessarily creating a group of people that are rooting for you to fail.
Even when you have been provided with an innovation lab that is located separately from the mother company, you still need to have good relationships with leaders and colleagues. If you are brash in your approach, leaders will simply wait for the moment that you need resources to scale your good ideas and squash your projects.
I have spoken to some intrapreneurs that refuse to work on building a bridge to core by arguing that when they find a good idea within their lab, they will just spin it out of the company. A few years later, they learn that it takes collaboration and support from leaders within the core business to spin anything out of a company. As such, a lack of humility is literally shooting yourself in the foot.
A lot of failing intrapreneurs tend to confuse innovation theatre with real innovation. They focus on the glamorous parts of the work such as cool working spaces, sticky notes, hackathons and idea jams. While these practices are instantly popular within the company, over time leaders start to notice that they are not getting an actual return on their investments in innovation. This is when intrapreneurs lose their jobs.
In contrast, successful intrapreneurs are authentic. They have a genuine interest in learning about what works within corporate innovation. Their main focus is on creating value for their organization. As such, they understand that successful innovation is ultimately about creating new revenues and profits for the company.
Due to their authentic interest in innovation, successful intrapreneurs are also very knowledgeable about the tools they are using. Most innovation tools, such as the business model canvas, appear very easy to use. However, there is a lot of knowledge and expertise that is needed to use the tools effectively. This expertise develops over time as intrapreneurs learn and practice on real projects.
Beyond ideation workshops, business ideas have to be tested before they are launched at scale. Knowing how to design, test and iterate on value propositions and business models is a unique and valuable skill set. It is also the skill set that is most likely to create real value for companies. This is why knowledgeable intrapreneurs tend to last longer in their jobs.
A lot of failing intrapreneurs engage in random acts of innovation. They spend their time working on the latest technologies, platforms and cool product ideas. These ideas are often unconnected to each other and to their company’s strategy. The intrapreneurs are convinced that if they show their company something cool, some leaders will be interested in taking it to scale. They are often wrong about this.
Successful intrapreneurs never engage in random acts of innovation. Their work is always connected to their company’s innovation strategy and guidance. To nurture this connection, successful intrapreneurs engage key stakeholders early within the innovation process. This ensures that their projects have leadership support when it comes time to launch and scale.
The above list is not meant to be exhaustive. However, there is a key lesson that I have learned over the years of working with intrapreneurs. You are not a successful intrapreneur unless you consistently develop and scale new profitable business models for your company. With that standard in mind, intrapreneurs will only succeed to the extent that they are able to work well within the dynamics of corporate environments.