Intrapreneurs? Don’t you mean entrepreneurs? The people who innovate, who see unseen opportunities, take risks and think outside of the box. Yes – that is what I mean – but I’m talking about the people who embody these skills and values inside companies, the people who are building business and opportunities within the structure of existing organizations.
Companies and managers talk a lot about innovation, but fostering new ideas and the people who generate them, requires action. We need to create cultures and mindsets that allow employees to know that it’s safe to take risks and be open. In a place where innovation is truly valued, you’ll be surprised by how many intrapreneurs you already employ. Motivated by the support and respect of their co-workers as well as the joy of being creative, intrapreneurs have the ability to transform companies.
So how do you create an environment that encourages creation?
Reward what you value.
While we talk about rewarding innovation, we more often default to rewarding the status quo. Being on time, following the rules, being ‘right’ – these are the traits that managers tend to reward without thinking and that’s not a bad thing. But it’s too limited. By only rewarding only those things, you shut out the very things that make intraprenuership thrive – time, outside the box thinking and making mistakes.
Research shows that small incentives are more successful than big value rewards when fostering innovation. The easiest incentive you can give an employee? Acknowledgement. When you’re in a meeting talking about the sales figures that were met, also talk about a new approach someone is taking to generate sales even if it hasn’t borne fruit yet. One of my favorite ideas is gaining traction in the business world –a “best failed idea” award. It provides not only a safe space to talk about innovation but signals that innovative thinking itself is worth rewarding.
Be clear about boundaries.
“One risk is that leaders say they just want ideas about anything, when actually…they want to encourage people to be innovative in particular areas. Otherwise they end up with thousands of ideas but can only pursue two of them, which creates enormous frustration, resentment and disappointment.” – Professor Julian Birkinshaw, London Business School.
Giving employees boundaries around innovation will be better for you and for them. There are projects that need to be done quickly and by the book. Others can stand more time and experimentation. Be clear about which is which so that employees have more opportunities to succeed. Acknowledging the structural barriers that stifle innovation is also important. By knowing which boundaries cannot be crossed, employees can work within the structure and be successful. Presenting a truly cutting edge idea is intimidating. Don’t fight company culture and present it in a way that immediately makes the listener defensive. Conforming to some of the rules that people are comfortable with gives them a better opportunity to be open to the ideas themselves.
Support employees to higher-ups.
Less than one third of workers feel like they have the freedom and support to be intrapreneurs; they’re afraid upsetting their managers or being fired. Companies succeed as teams, not individuals, and fostering success means being on the same team as your intrapreneurs. It means backing them up when they work beyond their job description and being supportive when talking to your higher-ups.
This doesn’t mean blindly supporting every idea everyone comes to you with. Support good ideas, but speak well of the process that went into the other ideas. “She had a crazy idea” can sound dismissive of both the idea and the person. “I really admire the thought process that went into her idea, even though we didn’t use it” lets your higher-ups know that you and your employee are a team.