Ignite Your Intrapreneurs Into an Innovation Engine

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Many organizations, especially non-profits, are lacking an innovation engine - the capability to identify and invest in long-term strategic opportunities that produce growth.

Identify Your Intrapreneurs:

A recent article on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network (Recognize Intrapreneurs Before They Leave) and another from Forbes contributor David Williams (The 4 Essential Traits of Intrapreneurs) help to identify this unique and often neglected species of employee through 6 traits:

1. Their primary motivation is influence and freedom, not money.

2. They're future-oriented and passionate about learning.

3. They "greenhouse" ideas - carefully tending to seeds until they have a strong plan.

4. They engage in "visual thinking" - formulating a series of solutions from the initial spark.

5. They are able to "pivot" - balking momentum in favor of better direction.

6. They're confident, but humble with high self-awareness and sense of purpose.

Interestingly, the authors of the HBR post suggest:

In a firm with 5,000 employees, we’ve found, there are at least 250 natural innovators; of these at least 25 are great intrapreneurs who can build the next business for your firm."

That means that only 5% of your workforce are natural innovators and one half a percent are great intrapreneurs.

If you don't have thousands of employees, you may be looking for a needle in a haystack, which makes it all the more important that you intentionally prepare for and nurture these hidden gems, taking advantage of their entrepreneurial combination of talents.

Nurture an Innovation Engine:

As a former intrapreneur who became fed up with bureaucracy and jumped ship, here's what kept me loyal for years and what would have kept me around longer had it been done better:

  • Foster a culture of grassroots best practices, even if you have a long way to go. Intrapreneurs want to be on a winning team. If you involve your frontlines in steering toward a better direction, your natural innovators will come out of the woodwork.
  • Recognize intrapreneurial qualities and connect your innovators with a mentor. Intrapreneurs question the status quo, which often isn't rewarded in management meetings at lower levels. Connect them with a mentor who can support their ideas and refine their approach to change leadership.
  • Recruit several intrapreneurs onto your executive leadership team. Without change leadership, your executive meeting is all talk with depressing status updates.
  • Intrapreneurs in leadership positions are prone to burn out. Support these executives with enough authority and a team so that they can effectively tackle strategic initiatives with success. This is your innovation engine.
  • Channel your innovation engine's ideas into an ambitious goal and gift it back to them. Big projects that will have a big impact are bright, shiny objects to intrapreneurs. I was always excited to be part of the process of strategic innovation.
  • Create a safe environment for experimentation and revisions. Too many leadership teams try to change on demand, doling out deadlines and metrics to their innovators, which in turn deters creativity and the ability to change course when needed.
  • Lead with integrity. Nothing kills loyalty quicker than deception and loyalty is a cultural pre-requisite for the change that your innovation engine needs to initiate. Adhere to strict values and take swift action to remove negative influences in your culture before they drive your talent out.

The concept of entrepreneurial employees isn't necessarily new, but it's gaining more attention because it's easier and more rewarding than ever before to leave your 9-to-5 and start your own business. Your best intrapreneurs are an online form and a quick website away from complete autonomy.

That being said, people are social creatures who want to be part of something bigger than themselves. By creating and nurturing an innovation engine, your organization will gain enormous competitive advantage over time. Plus, you will likely keep your intrapreneurs from going rogue longer and attract a steady flow of new ones to fill those big shoes.

What do you think?