The Definitive Guide to Starting a Corporate Intrapreneurship Program

You can’t go to a conference these days without talking about innovation and you can’t talk about innovation without talking some of the usual suspects that have faded into obsolescence in the wake of change: Blockbuster, MySpace, Kodak… these companies have been cautionary tales that have left every business and organization with a chilling fear of the unknown. And with good reason.

But when you talk about these bygone companies, you have to think about the people who were working there who saw the change coming and tried to correct the course. A common example  is Steven Sasson – the Kodak employee  who invented the first digital camera while he worked there… and that Kodak never commercialized.

How can this happen? Sasson is a tremendous example of an intrapreneur who couldn’t find a path to the future at his current organization, because sometimes even a relevant, prescient idea is not enough… a company needs to have the organizational capacity to nurture those ideas, take risks and deliver on them.  So how does an organization find and deliver on intrapreneurial ideas in order to stay relevant? Check out our definitive guide to starting a corporate intrapreneurship program.


What is intrapreneurship?

Intrapreneurship is what it sounds like – the entrepreneurs that are inside an organization.  They could be working on a project that the company is aware of or maybe they’re working on their own to solve an existing issue. Not all intrapreneurs think of themselves this way – some of them don’t even realize that they’re creating positive, innovative change at their company.

We suggest that the first step for organizations looking to nurture and develop intrapreneurship is to find some of the people in your organization who already behave this way. Maybe they instituted a new system for booking conference rooms, maybe they’re working on building a new product in their off hours. Find some of these people and recognize their work, give them space to do what they’re already doing and use the word intrapreneur to describe it. Creating this shared language will start the process of creating a shared imperative.


What is the value of intrapreneurship?

There are two reasons that companies want to create intrapreneurship programs:

1) You want to improve employee engagement. More than half of managers (58 percent) say that they want to support their employees with aspirations to explore business opportunities. And in a 2013 study by Millennial Branding and American Express, 40 percent of workers said they would be very or extremely interested in starting new ventures. This means that companies that want to nurture creativity and employees are hungry for it. To invest in your intrapreneurs is to meet their needs and professionally develop your workforce.

2)  You want to  improve your bottom line. According to Deloitte, “intrapreneurship pays off many times over in terms of company growth, culture, and talent. It does this by adding to the top line revenue growth, investing in talent, finding new competitive advantages, improving culture, optimizing the bottom line, and moving faster. According to IdeaScale data, the average member of an intrapreneurial community has at least $1,200 in untapped ideas. If you aren’t connecting with your intrapreneurs, then you aren’t cashing in on this value. 


How do you create buy-in?

The success of these programs begins at the top with a leadership team that believes in this kind of program. The Harvard Business Review says that these programs simply won’t work without “leadership and an innovation culture willing to commit” and a “mandate and scope for breakthrough innovations.” This generally starts with leadership and permeates multiple aspects of a company’s culture. So how do you bring your leadership on board?

Again, this work is already happening at your organization. To get your leadership on board, you should shine light on where it’s already working. Find some examples that have some measurable improvements: time saved, revenue earned and ask them to consider how many other intrapreneurs might be out there if you could train them and develop their ideas.

This is also the beginning of a commitment to tracking and reporting. Be sure to always find a way to articulate value to leadership, otherwise you risk the value of the program being overlooked.


Create spaces for intrapreneurship and improve communications 

Now that everyone’s on board, it’s time to create a space for this intrapreneurial work to happen. Many companies will build innovation labs or incubator workspaces, but some companies will build this same space digitally. The important part is that it’s a place where you can spend some time doing blue sky thinking and other times focusing, but that no matter what you’re working on you’re bound to bump into the creative thoughts of others.

These system-wide resources, however, won’t mean anything unless other people participate. And that means a great communications campaign inviting team members to participate no matter their seniority, background, or department. Bringing down these silos is often the first step to the creative combination of promising ideas.

This sort of system also helps to increase transparency and alignment while reducing redundancies. As people join this community, they can see why good ideas have traction and why less-than-perfect ideas failed to launch and why. It is an ongoing, searchable conversation for your vision of the future. That provides some intrinsic value to participating right out of the gate.


Creating processes around intrapreneurship

There is no single process for intrapreneurship. Our customers often ask us what the correct funnel is for product development or something different and we insist that performance depends very deeply on the organization and its goals.

However, it is most common for the process to function as a funnel with a great deal of ideas at the top and only a few selected concepts at the end. Ideas are evaluated by softer techniques in the early part of the funnel (voting, ratings) and are eliminated through more rigorous standards towards the end of the phase (technology constraints, budget, resources).  The best way to make sure that you move ideas all the way through the funnel (and therefore build trust with your intrapreneurs by helping them explore their ideas), is to start with a business unit that has a problem to solve. Work with them to clearly articulate their needs and criteria and help them select ideas that are going to help them create a positive change.


What it means to close the loop.

Your intrapreneurs are giving up a lot to help you solve problems. And it’s not just their time. They risk social capital by advocating for risky ideas, they have to stretch their talents to learn more and develop new skills. So it is absolutely critical that organizations find ways to nurture and reward intrapreneurs… even when the ideas don’t make it all the way through the funnel.

This could mean training in the soft skills necessary for intrapreneurship: like building a business case or pitching, it could mean offering them more visibility into departments that they’re curious about or access to leaders by letting them have lunch with the CEO. This could mean monetary rewards or gifts that they would appreciate. But recognition is still the most valuable and most used tool. Celebrate successes and failures and thank your intrapreneurs publicly.

A great example from an IdeaScale customer is a services company that got a great idea from one of their frontline staff. Not only did they find a creative way to tangibly reward him (he was a budding helicopter pilot and they paid for the flight time to get his license), they allowed him to pitch his idea in front of company leadership and that sort of first-hand exposure to the top of the company was a career-defining moment that made him an advocate for the intrapreneurship program. Do this for all your intrapreneurs and you’ll find success time and time again.


A few last words 

This guide is meant to be a starting point. Like any positive change, it is meant to be exploratory and iterative. Your intrapreneurship program will probably look very different than someone else who starts in this exact same place with these exact same suggestions. Don’t be afraid to let it evolve.

Finally, these system suggestions are more likely to make sense for incremental or adjacent innovation – disruptive innovation will probably still surprise leaders and require extra advocacy. It is for that reason that any guideline you create will need to be permeable and that you don’t fall so deeply in love with your own process that you can’t change it again.

So, who are the intrapreneurs that you’re already working with today?


Rob Hoehn, CEO, IdeaScale

Rob Hoehn is the co-founder and CEO of IdeaScale: the largest idea management platform in the world with more than 35,000 communities and 4.5 million users. IdeaScale empowers organizations to crowdsource ideas from their employees or customers who then collaborate, evaluate, and further develop those ideas into products, processes, and new initiatives. IdeaScale’s client roster includes industry leaders, such as Citrix, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, NASA, the New York City Police Department, Princess Cruises and many others.

Prior to IdeaScale, Hoehn was VP of Client Services at QuestionPro, an insight technology company, where he helped launch the company in its early stages.

He also speaks regularly about climate change and lives with his wife, two kids, and husky in Berkeley, CA. He holds a BS in Computer Science from the University of Vermont.


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