There are a number of inspiring success stories when it comes to corporate innovation. A few examples include Frito Lay’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Google’s GMail, 3M’s Post-It Notes and McDonald’s Happy Meal. Despite these successes, being a corporate innovator or intrapreneur is not easy. It can be frustrating trying to navigate innovation projects through corporate bureaucracy and politics.
The challenge of unlocking innovation in established companies is mostly driven by a lack of leadership support, with CEOs spending less than 10% of their time on innovation. Other challenges include; not having the right incentives in place, poor collaboration between key functions and an unwillingness to accept failure.
When intrapreneurs consistently face these challenges, it means that their company is not at the right level of innovation maturity. Corporate innovators have to work with their leaders to transform the culture within the company. However, not all leaders are willing to engage in such transformational change.
So how do you know if your company will ever change? When is the right time for an intrapreneur to give up and quit their job? There are two questions you have to ask yourself before you make that decision. But before we get to the questions, we need to first discuss the importance of getting early wins in driving an innovation cultural movement within a company.
Getting Early Wins
A key part of changing hearts and minds is talking to people. But talk without action can be less effective. Some intrapreneurs spend too much using slides to host talks and meetings with key stakeholders. Their goal is to try and get support for innovation by talking. While it is important to have such conversations, it’s even better to do the work.
What we are looking for are early wins; examples of innovation successes that we have driven within our company. To achieve this, we need to have the discipline to park our own ambitions as innovators for a period of time. We might have grand visions about the cool things we want to do. However, we won’t get the space to do those things until we have built the credibility and reputation for innovation within the company.
We should focus on helping our leaders and business units succeed at whatever they are working on. These need not be the coolest transformational or disruptive innovation projects. We should be happy to work on incremental or adjacent innovation. Ran Merkazy from Samsung argues that innovators should not push for disruptive ideas too soon. Before they can do that, they need to move the trust needle by making other people in the organization believe in them.
To get early wins, intrapreneurs should ask around for innovation projects within the company. In fact, they should volunteer to take on the projects that might have stalled and the business is struggling with. Their job will be to help drive these projects to success. And when they get that early win, celebrate it in public.
So the question of whether an intrapreneur should quit their job hinges on their ability to get early wins. Without such examples of successful internal innovation, we are faced with the difficult struggle of garnering support through talking to stakeholders. Celebrating internal success is a better magnet for supporters to our innovation movement. So the two questions below are focused on what intrapreneurs need to do to get those early wins.
Can You Find Early Adopter Leaders?
In most companies, there are people that want to innovate at every level. There are product teams that are eager to innovate. There are also leaders who get it and are looking for allies to work with to drive innovation. These people are your early adopters. Finding them is crucial to driving a cultural transformation.
Early adopters 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. What you are looking for are leaders who:
- Understand that the world and the business environment is changing.
- Are aware that their company has a deficit in innovation capabilities.
- Have been actively looking for solutions to this problem.
- Have already sponsored some internal innovation activities.
- Have the resources to invest and time to commit to innovation.
Leaders that have these five characteristics are the ones you are looking to start working with. First, you can move fast because you don’t have to do a lot of convincing. Second, you can test your innovation tools and methods in a safe space, with people who are not looking to tear you down. Finally, working with early adopters allows you to get some early wins by helping them address their challenges using innovation.
Working with early adopters allows you to kick start your innovation movement. But what if you can’t find any early adopters to work with? What do you do then? This is where our second question comes.
Can You Find An Ambassador?
If you cannot find early adopters, the best way to get that early win is to run an internal innovation project yourself. But this cannot be done without the support of an internal diplomat or ambassador. You need to find a key ally among your leaders to provide you with some aircover. This does not have to be someone in the C-Suite, but it has to be someone that is well-connected and respected inside the company.
The diplomat’s role is to support your work, get you budgets and resources, buy you time for experimentation and protect you from the bureaucracy of the company. Their role as a bridge to the company becomes even more important if your idea succeeds. When it’s time to ask for resources to scale your idea, there is nothing more valuable than having a well respected leader in your corner.
But what if you can’t find a diplomat? Now it’s time to seriously consider quitting.
When To Quit
If intrapreneurs cannot find early adopters or an ambassador, it will be difficult for them to get early wins. So they have one final choice. They have to run a ‘political campaign’ with meetings and workshops to convince key stakeholders. It is also advisable to host some keynotes delivered by external speakers. A successful outcome for such a campaign is the creation of early adopters or ambassadors.
If you don’t have the talent, skills or willingness to run the ‘political campaign’, it is time for you to start looking for a new job. If you do go for the ‘political campaign’ but you are not getting any traction within your company, then it’s time for you to quit your job. You have exhausted all available options. You will not succeed as an intrapreneur in your company.
This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at www.tendayiviki.com.