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The Myth of the Intrapreneur

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The Post-It note. Facebook’s “like” button. The Sony PlayStation. These products are all held up as legendary examples of the power of intrapreneurship — entrepreneurial creativity and innovation within large, established organizations. Since the term was coined in the 1980s, intrapreneurship has been sold to companies as a catch-all solution for fostering innovation. It’s been promoted to workers as a way to capture the creativity and excitement of entrepreneurship, but with more resources and less risk.

Intrapreneurs are supposed to be rebels, breaking the rules and swimming against the corporate tide. While this vision of the intrapreneurial maverick is certainly alluring, in truth it’s an ineffective way to drive innovation. After more than 20 years of researching innovation in large companies, it’s clear to me that the successful intrapreneur is often more myth than reality.

The experience of the typical intrapreneur looks less like Spencer Silver, who developed the Post-It note while at 3M, and more like Steven Sasson, the engineer at Kodak who invented the portable digital camera. As is now well-known, instead of propelling Kodak into the future, the digital camera became a massive missed opportunity.

Sasson’s experience at Kodak demonstrates that no single individual, no matter how brilliant, can take a game-changing innovation all the way from idea to reality. 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. Companies need to institutionalize innovation rather than expect it to simply flow forth from intrapreneurs operating within existing structures.

To start, innovation must be recognized as a permanent function of a successful company, just like other business functions such as accounting, operations, sales, and finance. It’s hard to imagine a large company without a marketing department or division, yet less than 50 years ago marketing as a business function, profession, and department did not exist. The same is true of innovation today. If companies want to be able to consistently innovate, they need dedicated innovation professionals to carry out the functions of discovery, development, incubation, acceleration, and scaling.

But this innovation division can’t be siloed off from the rest of the business. Company incubators and innovation labs that are isolated from the rest of the organization tend to have limited success, because they are disconnected from a larger system. Game-changing innovations require a holistic approach across the organization.

Over the past two decades, my colleagues and I have researched innovation through site visits and more than 600 interviews at Fortune 100 companies including Corning, DuPont, GE, and PepsiCo. Our research shows that, in order to develop, incubate, and scale game-changing innovation, organizations need a company-wide innovation management system that includes eight primary elements.

It starts at the top with (1) leadership and an innovation culture willing to commit (2) system-wide resources and (3) a governance process that can deliver on a clearly articulated (4) mandate and scope for breakthrough innovation. An inclusive (5) organizational structure with interfaces between different parts of the company incorporates the (6) processes and tools and (7) metrics and rewards required for an innovation cycles that takes longer than incremental product innovation. Lastly, companies need (8) skills and talent that are differentiated from traditional R&D or new product development roles.

We saw these elements take shape in different ways at different companies. However, what they all had in common was a desire to create a structure that institutionalized innovation and developed innovation professionals beyond offering them a “one-off” or one-time innovation job.

Companies need to create innovation careers rather than just innovation jobs. Our research supports the idea that people are a company’s most cherished and important innovation asset. The intrapreneurship concept understands this, but focuses its hopes on a genius who can swoop in to save the day. Instead, we must start thinking of innovation as a capacity that needs organization-wide support. Just like accountants and human resource managers, innovation professionals need clearly defined job roles, responsibilities, performance incentives, and career paths, as well as meaningful training and development opportunities.

Hiring a few talented individuals and hoping for the best, without changing anything about your organization, won’t cut it. Companies need a strategic plan for professionalizing and institutionalizing innovation across their organizations. This is the only way to nurture the breakthrough innovations needed for the future health of the business.

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