How To Turn Your Employees Into Intrapreneurs

Instilling the startup spirit in an established company yields the best of both worlds: entrepreneurial ingenuity combined with the resources to launch brilliant ideas.

12Jun

There’s a question that has become increasingly common in the age of Silicon Valley, where everything moves at the speed of innovation: How does a company grow, yet still maintain the drive, flexibility, and disruptive attitude of a startup? In other words, how do you bring the spirit of an entrepreneur along with you when you’re no longer a handful of people working out of a garage?

For many companies, big and small, the answer can be boiled down to one made-up word: intrapreneurship. By fostering an environment in which employees are encouraged to take risks and put forth new ideas, the essence of the entrepreneur can be captured within the secure backdrop of a larger company. In this environment, a business can have the best of both worlds: an influx of entrepreneurial ingenuity, and the manpower and funding to get those ideas off the ground more quickly than at a small startup.

For a prime example of intrapreneurship in action, look no further than Google, a huge company that continues to foster the intrapreneurial spirit and thrive as a result. This is, in large part, thanks to its famous "20% time" initiative, a segmented framework that encourages employees to spend 20% of their time on their own projects. This initiative promotes creative thinking and fosters an atmosphere in which employees are committed to fomenting disruption within Google, instead of leaving the company to create their own startups and disrupt from the outside.

This 20% time has led to some of Google’s best products. Back in 2001, for instance, Paul Buchheit started working on a messaging platform on his own time that eventually became Gmail. There have been some glorious failures along the way, of course, but that falls right in line with the essence of an entrepreneur. The point is that Google makes sure its employees know it's not only open to new ideas — it's waiting for them.

How to Cultivate Intrapreneurship at Every Level of Your Company

Of course, it’s easy to say that your company encourages intrapreneurs and is set to be the next Google, but actually getting employees in an entrepreneurial mindset can be a challenge — especially if it’s different from the way things are usually done. Here are three ways you can change your company culture for the better and embrace a more future-focused way of operating.

1. Welcome failure. The path of the entrepreneur is one of risk and failure. A strong signal that a company is stagnating is when it becomes unwilling to even entertain the possibility of failure, playing it safe and leading its employees down a path that eventually leads to irrelevance. These companies punish employees who fail, discouraging them from trying anything new or daring.

It’s an understandable impulse — the desire not to fall flat on one's face — but it completely disregards the value of failure as a learning experience. Mistakes actually map new pathways in the brain, creating new data that can be used to improve and succeed the next time. Or, at the very least, to fail better.

Create an environment that encourages risk-taking and values failure as a way to improve, rather than as a detriment to the company. Before you know it, your company will be filled with budding intrapreneurs.

2. Encourage collaboration. Before Procter & Gamble built its highly successful Swiffer line of products, it was struggling to come up with a better handheld duster on its own. Then one day, an employee visiting Japan stumbled upon a product owned by UniCharm that worked much better than anything P&G had come up with. Rather than scramble to create a copycat product, P&G collaborated with UniCharm and procured the rights for international distribution under the Swiffer brand. Win-win.

Collaboration isn’t just good for camaraderie among employees, it’s an indispensable element to the innovation process. Team-building spreads enthusiasm around the workplace, encourages employees to generate new ideas, and allows intrapreneurs to build on one another’s expertise. When this happens, you create workers who feel passionate about their ideas and who are motivated to share them. Collaboration should be sought both internally and externally. Don't shy away from collaboration with suppliers or even the competition. The idea is to cultivate a new idea, and the best way to do that is to work as a team.

3. Teach your team to pitch innovation. As any good entrepreneur knows, simply having an idea isn’t enough. You also need to be able to sell it. Encourage employees not to be shy about their ideas and to communicate why they’re worth taking the chance. Your employees should be able to identify the problems their idea solves and their ultimate goals for the project.

Give employees a forum where they can pitch new ideas and know they’ll be heard. At Ericsson, for instance, the company created IdeaBoxes, a sort of online suggestion box for innovation. Ideas posted there get feedback and votes from peers, and managers are encouraged to flag ideas they particularly like. IdeaBoxes works for both small and big suggestions and makes it so that even lower-level employees can be sure their ideas are heard.

Creating a culture of intrapreneurship is a critical way for established companies to differentiate themselves from the competition. A business that encourages a culture of intrapreneurship is one that’s ready for the future — whatever it may bring. By encouraging fresh ideas, welcoming failure, and working as a team, companies both big and small can compete in even the most cutthroat industries.

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