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Posted by Mark Davies 17 July 2018 Innovation Consultancy

Intrapreneurs have become something of a holy grail among organisations looking to innovate. Many hope that their entrepreneurial skills, including a capacity to generate ideas, problem solve and take calculated risks, will drive innovation, efficiency and growth. But do these intrapreneurs really exist, or are they nothing more than an industry myth? 


A recent article by Harvard Business Review (HBR) argued that ‘since the term was coined in the 1980s, intrapreneurship has been sold to companies as a catch-all solution for fostering innovation’ and has been ‘promoted to workers as a way to capture the creativity and excitement of entrepreneurship, but with more resources and less risk.’

HBR suggests that there is a tendency to see these intrapreneurs as internal rebels who challenge the status quo, yet ‘while this vision of the intrapreneurial maverick is certainly alluring, in truth it’s not an ineffective way to drive innovation.’ HBR therefore suggests that ‘the successful intrapreneur is often more myth than reality.’

HBR’s conclusion comes from the belief that no single person can take an innovation from inception to reality on their own. Rather, the article suggests that ‘innovation has to be a company-wide endeavor, supported from top to bottom by systems, structures, and a company culture that nurtures transformative ideas and products.’ Further, it argues that innovation has to be institutionalised if it is to become a permanent feature of a company.


In light of HBR’s article, you would be forgiven for questioning whether intrapreneurs actually exist. Yet while the need for a collaborative approach to innovation should be a fundamental part of any organisation’s strategy, does this mean that individuals cannot play a central role in its development? 

According to a Forbes article by Liz Elting, intrapreneur is a term that should be applied to millennials currently coming up through the ranks of some of the most successful organisations in the world. Elting argues that ‘the companies that succeed are the companies that embrace an intrapreneurship model that takes advantage of all the considerable assets millennials bring to the table.’

Elting raises an interesting point about millennials, arguing that they are ‘hamstrung by economic realities dampening their real potential.’ She suggests this can be observed in the fact that millennials are not starting businesses and that ‘their rates of entrepreneurship actually trail that of their parents and grandparents dramatically.’ Yet far from indicating a lack of skills and entrepreneurial drive, Elting believes that millennials are simply held back by current economic stability and the fact that the risks of starting a business from scratch often outweigh the benefits. This is leading more and more millennials to become intrapreneurs within the companies they work for, driving innovation internally and committing to their work beyond what is required.


So if intrapreneurs exist, and are making up an increasingly large part of the workforce as millennials come to dominate, how can organisations strike a balance between a collaborative culture of innovation and one which allows individuals with potential to drive creativity?

For Jill Schiefelbein, author of Dynamic Communication and contributor, ‘creating systems for intrapreneurship is a key success factor in many of today’s successful companies.’ Schiefelbein suggests that to do this, organisations need to ‘develop an internal process that all employees can use to bring ideas to the table and communicate them to the right people within your organization.’

One of Schiefelbein’s suggestions that would work particularly well when balancing the needs of intrapreneurs and collaborative innovation is what she calls a P-SWOT analysis. A play on the well-known SWOT - strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – analysis that is used to analyse ideas, P-SWOT stands for Positioning SWOT. This means analysing not just the idea in question but the intrapreneur themselves, encouraging them to assess their own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats ‘when it comes to being in a position to spearhead this idea or present it in the first place.’

By asking questions like ‘why should you be the one to make this idea happen?,’ ‘do you have the necessary time to complete this idea?,’ and ‘are there others in the organization who would oppose this idea?,’ Schiefelbein creates a method of supporting intrapreneurs while taking into consideration their position within the wider team and organisational culture of innovation. This middle way could be the answer to the seeming incompatibility between intrapreneurship and collaboration, fostering a future-proof innovation strategy that can drive growth and profitability.

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