In my career as a technologist, strategist, and now chief innovation officer for a Fortune 500 company, I’ve learned a valuable lesson. If you want an innovative culture, you need to empower employees to pursue their daydreams during work hours. My thesis is simple: If your workforce has the curiosity to develop original solutions around their passion projects, then giving them the space to experiment only increases their ability to apply adjacent innovation to client problems as well.
Developing a culture of innovation requires commitment, refinement, and collaboration. Here is my best advice to organizations looking to foster more internal innovation and support the intrapreneurs—internal employees who use their entrepreneurial skills to develop new ideas and solutions—who help drive an innovative workforce.
Create space—mentally and physically—to experiment and daydream
Even without construction, companies can create idea incubation hubs in existing spaces through a little creativity. Repurpose conference rooms as creative areas. Install informal gathering places, including dining areas and team rooms. New environments can stimulate the senses, invite discomfort, shift perspectives, and encourage dynamic teaming, all of which can spur new ways of thinking.
Secure support and participation from leaders
Day to day, encourage leaders to set aside time for their teams to pursue personal passions. Create a bank of “innovation time” that employees can draw upon throughout the year, and dedicate a portion of staff meetings for employees and interns to share their concepts. Invite all staff to pitch their projects on an annual basis, and invest real money in the top ideas that emerge. By accepting, encouraging, celebrating, and at times financially supporting personal innovation, organizations can motivate employees and tap into creative brainpower that promotes innovative problem-solving.
Define the vision for an intrapreneur program and its success
Intrapreneurs are a valuable asset to your organization. Develop a program to support their work, set goals and metrics for the first year, and allocate an investment to make in it. Identify champions to help advocate for the program internally, and recruit impact-driven participants that can bring back value to their teams.
Partner with a social impact accelerator
Groups like SEED SPOT, an impact-driven accelerator, support entrepreneurs where they are—in schools, communities, and work. In partnership with SEED SPOT, Booz Allen hosts multiple events each year for the firm’s intrapreneurs to explore their ideas and learn how to start up, creating a safe space for employees to try their hand at sparking change in the world.
The project has already yielded results. Attorney Josh Singer is one of nearly 50 intrapreneurs to participate in SEED SPOT competitions. Josh, an active father in his community and founder of the firm’s Take Your Kid to Work Day, has a passion for helping kids and parents. Last fall, he participated in SEED SPOT’s 2-Day Launch Camp and was given the Viable Business Award for Baby Friendly America LLC, a venture that promotes restaurants with changing tables, high chairs, and other baby-friendly equipment to parents of young children. Next, he’ll enter an intensive program focused on business modeling, proven go-to-market strategies, and investor relationship development practices, bringing inspiration and insights back to his full-time role in the General Counsel’s office.
Collaborate with managers and project leaders to unlock potential
Invest in supporting employees whose innovations have the power to support your business and the greater good. In another recent SEED SPOT collaboration, nearly three dozen intrapreneurs completed a nine-week program focused on catalyzing innovation within Booz Allen. Hoping to productize innovations like an enhanced signal processor, drone defense-technology, or an environmental and health CX platform, these teams received more than 20 hours of mentorship and coaching that supported both their desire to effect change and to support global client missions.
Companies that want to innovate must start somewhere, and these ideas can provide a fertile starting place as bigger structural changes evolve. Consider offering your staff extra time and space for dialogue, collaboration, and innovation. You may be surprised by what emerges.
Susan Penfield is the Chief Innovation Officer at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global technology and management consulting firm.