Intrapreneurship is not the same as entrepreneurship. While there may be some similarities, intrapreneurship has distinct challenges that require a different mindset from innovators. Our culture tends to celebrate the brash entrepreneur who takes risks and disrupts incumbent companies. This is the underdog story we root for and love to hear.
But this is not the world of corporate innovation. The vast majority of intrapreneurs that I work with are actually employed by an incumbent company. They are receiving monthly paycheques and have been given some mandate to innovate within the confines of the organization. What I have learned is that being a successful innovator inside a large organization requires a particular mindset. There are three things that every intrapreneur needs to focus on to succeed.
Focus On Creating Value
Avoid innovation theatre. When working with corporate innovation teams, I enjoy provocatively reminding them that they are not real entrepreneurs because they get a paycheque every month. This provocation serves as a reminder that the comfort of a salary can sometimes give intrapreneurs space to engage in activities that look like innovation but ultimately create no value. This is innovation theater. For example, innovation teams can end up spending an excessive amount of time on ideation, competitions and hackathons.
The ultimate measure of innovation success is whether the ideas we work on end up creating value for customers and our organization. The successful intrapreneurs I have worked with are obsessed with value creation. They go to work everyday and spend their time designing and testing value propositions and business models. While there are some failures along the way, the successes they are most proud of, are the ones that involve products in customers hands and value flowing back to the business.
Focus On Building Relationships
Avoid the brash ego. Remember the ultimate goal is to have products and services that end up in the market. In a corporate environment, this can only be achieved by building collaborative relationships with people that work in key functions such as sales, marketing, operations, legal and compliance. If you are unable to get the support of people in key functions, it will be extremely difficult for your innovations to succeed.
The creation of the value proposition requires support from key functions. The delivery of that value proposition to customers also requires this support. Finally, in order to get value back from customers, you have to work with key functions such as finance. If we set having a successful business model as the ultimate measure of success, then the intrapreneur necessarily succeeds by building relationships within the organization.
Some may view this as politics, but for the intrapreneur this is a key part of the job. Always remember that you are not Elon Musk and you don’t work in a company full of idiots. I have seen several innovators unnecessarily burn bridges they will need to use later by being brash and egotistical. When it comes time to launch and scale your innovations, you will need allies. So make sure you have built those relationships in advance.
Focus On Repeatable Processes
Avoid one-off projects. Because they are so hard to come by, intrapreneurs are keen to celebrate every success they get. But even as we celebrate, an important question is whether we can do it again. Having succeeded with one project, what did we learn that we will now apply to future projects to help them move faster and succeed? A focus on innovation as a repeatable process required an ecosystem mindset.
An ecosystem mindset is simply an extension of the focus on building relationships. At this level, we are now deepening those connections into commitments to support innovation teams on an ongoing basis. For example, what agreements could you reach with legal and compliance so that you can create a playbook for innovation teams to be allowed to test their ideas without having to go through a long approval process each time?
When intrapreneurs start building innovation ecosystems, they have graduated into being world class innovators. They are now truly focused on helping their organizations sustain themselves into the future. They are working with leaders to create the best environment for winning ideas to emerge. Companies with innovation ecosystems have an unbeatable competitive edge in today’s business environment.
To fully understand the differences between an entrepreneur and intrapreneur, you have to appreciate the differences in the business environments that each of them operate in. Understanding this context is important. The right mindset and behaviour depends on what works best for each context. The intrapreneur is trying to innovate within an organization that is mostly geared up to deliver on the current business model. The entrepreneur does not have such constraints. So while both are focused on bringing new ideas to life, they have to use different tactics to succeed.