Where will our future growth come from? This question is on the minds of many leaders and leadership teams. The recent acceleration of change in technology and the evolution of business-to-consumer and business-to-business relationships has only added more depth to the question. It has become clear that many technology innovations grow the bottom line through gained efficiency, but may not add to top line growth. Moreover, selling more of the same services in the same way to the same markets likely won’t provide the same lift as in the past. Thus, most companies are left looking to other sources of organic growth and/or facing a merger and acquisition strategy.  

A big potential source of organic growth is offering new products and services. While leaders acknowledge this may be a critical need, given the changing environment, many are uncertain of the path to take to develop these offerings. One option is to acquire new products and services and develop the talent to lead them; however, there is another, often more powerful, option – creating new products and services from within by prioritizing and unleashing intrapreneurship. 

What is Intrapreneurship?

The term “intrapreneurship” was first introduced by Gifford Pinchot in 1978 and has since taken on various definitions. In its simplest form, an intrapreneur is defined as an employee who does for corporate innovation what an entrepreneur does for a start-up. Pinchot’s work also says it’s not just about “dreaming”; it’s about doing. It’s the difference between an invention and a revenue-generating product, which is the critical differentiating factor for true entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs. It’s important for intrapreneurs to be able to identify opportunities, but it’s also essential for them to be able to bring those opportunities to fruition, even if they fail along the way.   

Every organization has some percentage of employees who fit these descriptions, and you’ve seen them in your own organization. They are the employees who think outside the box, are passionate about ideas, have an entrepreneurial spirit, take the initiative to explore or learn, see new opportunities or new needs, and (most importantly) are eager to take action. These team members are your intrapreneurs, and to drive organic growth, you must do one thing: empower them.  

Four Ways to Get Started

There are several aspects to empowering intrapreneurship, but here are four ways to start:

  1. Establish intrapreneurship as a company priority. 
    If organic growth is important to your organization, elevate the conversation around it. Talk about intrapreneurship and make it a known priority. Connect it to your mission and purpose, and discuss how it fits with your future vision. Ensure that leaders reinforce this message and are dedicated to nurturing entrepreneurial thinking and activity as an ongoing business imperative.
  2. Identify entrepreneurial talent and let it loose.
    The good news is you don’t have to hire entrepreneurial talent. You already have it. As noted above, every organization has employees who think entrepreneurially or have innate entrepreneurial talent. Growth-oriented companies look for that talent, recognize and develop it, and ensure that these individuals or teams are allowed to create and activate ideas. Said differently, leaders remove barriers or obstacles that get in the way.  
  3. Support rapid prototyping, experimentation, and iteration. 
    One of the hallmarks of a successful innovation process is the ability to prototype and learn. Organizations steeped in discipline and structure can be somewhat resistant to moving an idea forward to market unless it is fully built, proven, and validated. This approach may be long and drawn out and often requires significant investment before market testing. It may also amplify the perceived risk and stigma of “failure”. A more cost-effective and efficient approach for both the firm and its intrapreneurs is to adopt rapid prototyping. This process includes creating a minimum viable product or service and deploying it in small-scale experiments to learn what resonates, what might need to be adjusted, and what doesn’t work. Integrating feedback and learning provides for more informed iteration and often a stronger growth-oriented product or service in the end. 
  4. Allocate time and resources to support your intrapreneurs.
    Part of making intrapreneurship a priority includes ensuring that you allow the space and time for creativity and development. This may mean shifting the responsibilities and results expectations of those who demonstrate entrepreneurial tendencies so they can meaningfully invest in your future growth. In addition, it is important to ensure the company allocates resources needed for these efforts. The intrapreneurs’ projects might need collaborators or other human resources, tools, or systems. However, to move the projects forward, the company also needs to ensure there is a structure and process to facilitate funding ideas.  

Fostering intrapreneurship and employing these four actions can significantly increase the engagement and retention of the employees involved. Besides the strong benefits for talent, purposefully cultivating a culture of intrapreneurship provides ongoing innovation and sustainable organic growth. These outcomes are described well by Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group:  

While it’s true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it underway, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development. Virgin could never have grown into the group of more than 200 companies it is now, were it not for a steady stream of intrapreneurs who looked for and developed opportunities, often leading efforts that went against the grain.”

– Richard Branson

If you want to spark the entrepreneurial spirit in your firm, make it a priority and look for what is hidden in plain sight: your intrapreneurs. Notice and remove barriers. Look for long-standing cultural behaviors or policies that adversely impact idea sharing or creativity — and eliminate them. Ask about and provide resources. Encourage experimentation. Recognize efforts and remove the ‘stigma’ of failure. In short, empower your “smattering of intrapreneurs,” and you will unlock their passion and your future growth possibilities.