Intrapreneurship programs promote engagement, creative thinking

Entrepreneurial initiatives can go long way toward developing, attracting top talent
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/16/2013

Most people would probably agree the C-suite doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas. Yet, for many reasons, that’s where most strategic ideas are hatched and important plans are formed.

But intrapreneurship programs are starting to spread that creative power throughout all levels of an organization’s hierarchy. And it’s a trend that’s only going to grow, according to Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Millennial Branding, a gen-Y research and consulting firm in Boston.

Intrapreneurship programs rely on in-house employees to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, generating and presenting new ideas to help improve the company. And these programs are catching on fast.

“It’s big because it’s a corporation’s way of innovating and staying competitive in the marketplace, and I believe it’s their way of competing against millennials’ desire to start a company or work for a startup,” said Schawbel.

“You look at companies like Google and DreamWorks… it’s like you’re working for a startup within a large company. And I think that’s going to be the model moving forward for larger companies — they’re going to have to adopt those types of practices and that atmosphere, which is going to be a challenge.”

Intrapreneurship programs can be attractive to all generations in the workplace because everyone wants to feel like they’re being heard, said Schawbel.

“People want their ideas heard, they want to sit at the table… so it has to be less of a hierarchy and more of allowing ideas to flow up and down within the corporation. They need to create programs around this and really invest time and money and resources to make it happen. Otherwise, it won’t happen.”

And there are countless different ways to implement these programs, as we’re already seeing with some big companies, said Schawbel.

“Google allows employees to spend 20 per cent of their time outside their job description, working on projects that benefit the company but they’re not tasked to do,” he said. “(At) LinkedIn, every single year you can pair with some of your fellow employees and come up with an idea and pitch it to executives, and if they like your idea they’ll fund it. DreamWorks has classes that teach you how to pitch your ideas, come up with presentations, and then they’ll put executives in front of you and they’ll fund the good projects.”

The programs are a win-win, said Schawbel.

“It helps the company stay more competitive, it gives a culture of innovation, people are excited about work, people feel like they can make a difference.”

LinkedIn ‘incubates’ top talent

The LinkedIn “incubator” program is an effective intrapreneurship program.

“For the last three or four years, we’ve had monthly ‘hackdays,’” said Florina Xhabija Grosskurth, who co-ordinates the incubator program at LinkedIn in San Francisco.

“So myself and a group of hackday (winners) got together and thought, ‘We’re kind of sick of winning these hackdays and not seeing these ideas go anywhere.’ So we decided to create incubator as a way to continue working on those products.”

Now, incubator has three to four rounds per year. Employees from LinkedIn’s 28 global offices apply to the program with their ideas. After preliminary judging, 10 to 15 finalists present their ideas to the executive team, which decides who will get funding.

“Because you get up to three months of dedicated time to make it happen, it’s kind of like a startup,” said Grosskurth. “So we want the people that are having these ideas and these passion projects to be dedicated to it.”

The program has been an excellent example of the benefits of intrapreneurship, she said.

“It’s important because it allows you to disrupt from within. That’s when you get the really great ideas,” said Grosskurth. “You allow people to flex their creative muscles in a way that they maybe don’t really do in their day-to-day. So it allows for a little more freedom, and with that freedom comes creativity and great ideas.”

Open culture key to creativity

Intrapreneurship programs depend on a corporate culture that is open to new ideas, according to Lola Rasminsky, founder of Beyond the Box, which provides arts-based workshops and training programs in Toronto.

“You really have to have an ecosystem that promotes creative thinking and promotes taking chances and ideas that aren’t tried-and-true,” she said.

“A lot of people feel it’s risky even to suggest a new idea. So when talking about intrapreneurship… really the most important thing is to create an environment that is safe.”

And to create that environment, people need to be aware of and address their own critical tendencies, said Rasminsky.

“People have to recognize their natural tendencies to jump on each others’ ideas and find reasons why they won’t work, or sort of nip any creative ideas in the bud by having almost a natural default position of saying, ‘That won’t work.’”

At the same time, people must be prepared for the possibility their ideas won’t always work out.

“You have to be able to ride out adversity, because it’s a roller-coaster ride. I don’t think there’s anyone who is an entrepreneur who hasn’t faced some hard times,” she said.

“To manifest that entrepreneurial spirit anywhere, even within a corporation, you’ve got to be prepared to be knocked down occasionally.”

To launch a successful intrapreneurship program, an organization also needs to capitalize on employees with drive and motivation or the initiative will fail, said Rasminsky.

The most important benefit of intrapreneurship is a deeper level of engagement among employees — no matter their salary or job title, she said.

“If you’re going to enjoy your work, you’ve got to feel like you’re recognized and you’ve got something to contribute, and you have ideas that are valid. And I don’t care what job you have in an organization — you could be the lowest person on the totem pole and you could have the most brilliant idea.”

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