The Intrapreneur's Playbook

Startups get all the glory when it comes to innovation, but intrapreneurship—or, creating from within an established company—is much trickier. Here's the 4-step playbook for making it work.

What would you add to this playbook? Tell us in the comments section below.

When it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship gets a lot of attention. But every day, people are generating new products and business models within established companies as well. This so-called intrapreneurship may seem cushier—after all, a corporate parent eliminates some risks of a startup—but it’s often a challenging and delicate proposition.

The corporate environment can be complicated; as a result, the intrapreneur’s playbook is just as attuned to balancing interests as it is to disruptive innovation. Here are some tips for making your big ideas a reality, without rocking the corporate boat (too much).

Good intrapreneurs manage expectations—downward.
Entrepreneurs get nothing but upside from widespread buzz about their hot new ventures; but for an intrapreneur, too much hype, too soon, can be detrimental.

Within a corporation, big promises often attract the attention of higher-ups, and it’s a lot harder to innovate freely when the guy who signs your checks is breathing down your neck.

In early stages, always drive home that your new product, service, or business line is a pilot. Be clear that your work is preliminary, experimental and focused on assessing opportunities, traction, and risk. Set clear parameters—a prototype, test engagements with customers, etc.—and keep everyone focused on evaluating that near-term goal. "Pilot" is code for "this may not work," and you need that out; without that disclaimer, pressure may not only build on you, but other parts of your organization can also get ahead of themselves. You don’t want your sales team selling customers on a product that may not work, or your GM expecting revenue from an unproven concept. Don’t promise the moon too early.

Good intrapreneurs are systematic and stage the risk.
The value of pilots is tied to the broader importance of staging a venture systematically. Entrepreneurs sometimes have the freedom to cobble together something cool, roll it out, and see what happens; but intrapreneurs’ actions have implications on an established business, and can’t put that business at risk without a sufficiently large pay-off.

Explicit roadmaps with clear checkpoints are important indications that you understand this risk/reward trade-off. Make clear that you’ll constantly re-evaluate your venture and adapt; you want to build in milestones that provide multiple opportunities to expand investment, course correct, or abandon ship as things evolve. You may build a great prototype, but if research finds that customers have a low willingness to pay for your new product, then it’s back to the drawing board. Your roadmap should account for this possibility and others like it. Be a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

Good intrapreneurs bootstrap for as long as possible.
Ironically, while corporate start-ups have company resources available to them, intrapreneurs would do well to think like entrepreneurs and bootstrap for as long as possible. Asking for (or getting) corporate funds is the quickest way to put an iterative, experimental approach in danger. When people give you money, they expect results; that rigidness can be harmful to early stage ventures still experimenting with success.

Bootstrapping has another benefit as well: the more concrete your business case when requesting capital, the more promising the perceived return on investment. Product specs, working prototypes, commitments from customers, MOUs with strategic partners—all minimize the risk of investment by fleshing out the path to success. This makes your organization feel more confident about dedicating funds that could have otherwise been used elsewhere in the business, to you.

Good intrapreneurs explain the four "whys"—to everyone.
The four "whys" speak to the strategic rationale behind your venture. Think through these questions and recite your answers dutifully to stakeholders across the organization, from the lowliest analysts to C-Suite officers:

  • Why this? How does your new venture connect to customer needs, industry structure, technological advancements, growth strategies, or other market forces?
  • Why now? This is about timing, obviously. Is there a new gap in the market? A competitive shift? A first-mover advantage to be had? A new corporate strategy into which your idea plays?
  • Why us? Why should your company be the one to act on your big idea? What competitive advantage or key assets does your company have that make your venture a good fit? How does your vision complement the existing business or strategy?
  • Why me? As you approach individuals and teams about your venture, make clear why their involvement is important, and make involvement rewarding for them. Most truly innovative ventures will start skunkworks style, loosely organized and cross-functional; but your collaborators already have full-time jobs that are their primary responsibilities. Make them care. Sometimes that means doing the not-so-fun things—PowerPoints and spreadsheets, admin work, and scheduling—yourself. Doing so minimizes the burden on your teammates so they can engage with the substance of your vision, particularly in sensitive early stages.

More often than not, intrapreneurship is about balancing innovation with other organizational priorities. To some, that may sound a bit less sexy than all-out entrepreneurship—but speaking as someone who’s done both, the fact that intrapreneurship is nuanced means it presents a possibly even greater challenge—and reward.

What would you add to this playbook? Tell us in the comments section below.

—Niko Karvounis is the cofounder of Quovo, an investment management platform.

[Image: Flickr user Dov Harrington]

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29 Comments

  • Jorge C. Sá Couto

    Great post!

    I share with you our definition of intrapreneur, or as we name it Innovation Driver:
    The Innovation Driver is a restless activist who advocates for constant change and
    evolution in our organization. The Driver questions our own status quo with the
    aim to lead the value transformation, guided by the company’s strategy. Moved
    by curiosity and enthusiasm he or she employs ingenuity, empathy and teamwork
    skills to achieve outstanding goals. The best two words which describe a Driver are: intrapreneur attitude.

    Main duties:
    Intrapreneurship: drive an idea from concept to reality throughout the internal process facing all inherent obstacles and difficulties; generating new and more
    business.
    Community Engagement: Captivate and stimulate other people to collaborate with her/him throughout the different steps of the process.
    Change: transform what, how and where the company does.
    Communicate:
    - company values
    - innovation objectives
    - CSP_INNO undertaking

  • Scotty

     I saw a marvelous poster recently that shows the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels precision flight demonstration team. The caption reads, "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit."

  • Mrydesky

    The point about resources- when you accept funding, you change the dynamics and may give up some flexibility- so true!

  • Jeni Tanan

    Being an intrapreneur is not easy if you are not willing to allow your boss to get all the credit for your innovative ideas.  You have to have a humble heart.  But, at the end you will get the benefit.

  • Isra Salgado Portugal

      a very Good Intrapreneur needs to be well connected at the top to have opportunities to innovate!

  • Guille Luna

    the intrapeneur needs to have the necesity of somthing that never gonna fin in anywere, so this way the personas will have ideas to innovate or create something that people goona want.

  • Pcdelaney79

    Work in a large financial organization with budgets created September / October the year before and resources at a minimum.  I attempt to create my teams objectives based on the intrapreneurship model, be creativity, low key, define benefits, realize benefits then communicate.

  • Anton Kriz

    The is a complex area and there are many aspects not covered. The idea of a pilot is interesting. Certainly what is called "renegade" behaviour is often carried out more or less under the radar. The nature of this type of player is difficult and it takes quite a sophisticated approach in order to survive and thrive. Sponsors at senior level including the board are a key as well.

  • Robert McCuiston

    Well entrapreneurship is fine, as my previous employer ask me to take on this role to come up with advances in tech home offerings, but I ask what was my reward, additional compensation, time off, etc.? He replied " It is nothing about compesation, but rather because he acknowledged I was a innovator" I declined his offering and started my own entrepreneur start-up company Innovative Investments Inc. Why on earth would I let the large corporation reap the rewards from my ideas? What a good question:)

  • Jorge C. Sá Couto

    Hi Robert,

    And I ask you why not? As Niko Karvounis  mentioned on his great post, "This so-called intrapreneurship may seem cushier--after all, a corporate parent eliminates some risks of a startup." But not only that, established companies usually have more resources to develop and launch new business ideas.

    Under my humble opinion I think you left because you didn't trust the C-level management of your company. Rewards or compensations should never be given at a proposal stage, unless you want to recognize an employee that has worked and tried hard but the circumstances weren't there. Rewards or compensations should be given when projects are won or products are launched. 

    To finish... why most of the times "large corporation" = "5 heads devil monster"?

    Best,
    Jorge

  • Jen

    I finally found out that the way I innovate at work is actually being an intrapreneur!   Yeehaaa

  • Erik Michielsen

    We covered 'What defines an intrapreneur in a mid-sized business" in a video interview with ex-GE manager Maurizio de Franciscis.  He notes firstly that an intrapreneur role comes with finding yourself in a company not having realized you wanted to be an entrepreneur. Here is the video on the Capture Your Flag YouTube page: http://youtu.be/6oKdIatGmqY

  • SE

    Is about mindset, as an employee you are bound by the organisation regulation and red tape. To be free and innovative, you need to setup your own boundary and ring fence it. Yes, is well acknowledged that upward management is critical, however when speak about continue innovation we know well is come from the bottom. A process or journey that we can exposure such talent of our people and every idea make possible!

  • Mark Hamlett

    I've been in sales for over 25 years and I've experienced that an "intrapreneur" activity can revitalize a stagnant sales force. At times the product is present and the consumer in need but the market is "closed". The farmer typically can increase production, therefore having an intrapreneur reevaluating a companies cycle is vital to maintaining flow and avoiding spoilage.

  • Robin

    A Good Intrapreneur needs to be well connected at the top to have opportunities to innovate!

  • Alexandre Sartini

    Good intrapreneurs are able to build a winning team by combining complementary talents and by convincing key stakeholders to fully support the project!

    Most of the time the team members come from different departments and their managers have to accept that they will lose some of their best resources for day to day work.

  • David Bradley

    Be sure to identify the key stakeholders that will be effected both negatively and positively by the implementation of the product. Then identify the stakeholders that will have the institutional influence enough to help convince the higher-ups that this is worth it.

  • Maria Pinelli

    Interesting ideas here for Intrapreneurs to take note. From a different angle, we have done extensive research into effective tactics that corporations can employ to support their intrapreneurs and foster a culture of innovation from within. Some valuable overlaps with this playbook -Prepare for the pitfalls of intrapreneurship. Not all ideas will produce successful new products. Failure is an important part of the process.Design a career path for your intrapreneurs. For the most part, intrapreneurs are mavericks who will quit — and take their best ideas with them — if they don’t see prospects for career advancement.Ask for ideas from your employees. They have their fingers on the pulse of the marketplace. Encourage them to contribute to the innovation dialogue.Set up a formal structure for intrapreneurship. Give people enough time away from their “day jobs” to work on creative projects, but provide a formal process for new product development.Assemble and unleash a diverse workforce. It’s no secret that diverse groups come up with more innovative ideas. Tap into this multifaceted source of power.Explore government incentives for innovation. Ask how these can support your intrapreneurial ventures. Governments all over the world are offering new tax breaks and other incentives for research and development (R&D) — and corporations in turn are urging governments to support innovation.(Source: EY Igniting Innovation report http://www.ey.com/GL/en/Servic...

  • alison_mp

    This is great. I'd add that a good intrapreneur will definitely need a lot of passion and convincing skills — especially in companies where the corporate culture is risk-averse and less relaxed vis-a-vis failure.

    And out of curiosity — have you guys written an article about the attitude of upper management/the corporate culture/systems to stimulate and push for innovation and intrapreneurship? The main academic cases are Lucent Tech and 3M, but I'd love to here your opinion on that.

  • Erik Michielsen

    Hi Alison.  I saw your comment and have something that speaks to your inquiry.  In our annual documentary interviews with rising leaders, we speak with Marc Ferrentino, who was Chief Technology Architect at Salesforce.com and then Chief Technology Officer of Cloud Computing Group at BMC Software.  In this video - "How Corporate Leadership Creates Innovation Culture" - from our YouTube channel he discusses management techniques to instill an innovation-led corporate culture in an organization.  Here is the link: http://youtu.be/AbIVP2peGAo