How to Embrace Internal Innovation For Long-Term Differentiation
Welcome to the Exponential Age, where the speed of business grows faster each day, and the concept of innovation becomes increasingly prevalent in discussions about long-term stability and competition.
Innovation splashes as a buzzword in state-of-the-company presentations, sound bites, and thought leadership, but most organizations still struggle to implement a strategy around the concept.
...most companies fail to realize that they have the key to innovation already on their company roster
Think of startups and small businesses, where rapid-fire ideas are encouraged to accelerate growth, triggering a certain playfulness in idea conception and execution. In certain high growth industries, like technology and healthcare, the continuous cycle of innovation is critical for survival.
On the other hand, for companies in more mature industries and juggernaut corporations, ideas may start fast, but either grind to a halt or run off the cliff of support like Wile E. Coyote, crashing as quickly as they formed.
What most companies fail to realize is that they have the key to innovation already on their company roster. Most, if not all, companies have at least one intrapreneur in their ranks: someone who is dedicated to the company, but who thinks a little bit outside the box and creates unique opportunities to grow and differentiate.
Who are these intrapreneurs?
Predominantly, intrapreneurs are not ego-driven and do not conduct themselves as saboteurs, but are simply looking for an outlet to exercise their creative minds, observational tendencies, and willingness to work hard to help the company into the future. They crave a sense of purpose but need to think into the unknown and innovate as part of that purpose.
This is where many organizations miss their opportunities.
By nature, intrapreneurs have to swim against the current, which challenges the thought processes of their organization. At times, this leads them to be ridiculed, even punished for speaking up about ways that their company can compete on a different level. They have managers who are afraid of the change, stunted by a lack of leadership development.
[Intrapreneurs] crave a sense of purpose but need to think into the unknown and innovate as part of that purpose...
Many companies promote their leaders because they succeeded in their previous roles but lack the leadership capabilities and support. They elevate to a new job title only to bring with them close-mindedness, insecurity, and imposter syndrome. They are threatened by intrapreneurs because they view them as mavericks or rebels.
So how can companies change how they view intrapreneurs and embrace the potential for internal innovation optimization? The following mindset shifts will provide a step in the right direction:
Drop the Corporate Ego
Intrapreneurs get mixed messages on their ability to ideate in a safe space.
Most companies convey an entrepreneurial spirit and encourage idea generation, only to be contradicted by actual behavior and employee impression. In fact, in a study conducted by Accenture, only 20% of employees agreed that their managers encourage entrepreneurial ideas. Most leaders within organizations haven’t purely embraced the curious nature of the intrapreneur.
So what happens to those valuable team members who are trying to generate great ideas for your company? They escape the suffocation and follow through on their ideas. Seventy perecent of successful entrepreneurs conceptualized their ideas while working for a thriving company and then departed to create it on their own.
Create specific training for managers on what actions to take when presented with new ideas...
The question needs to be asked: would you rather embrace these revenue generating ideas or face the possibility of competing with them (or face the prospect of having to buy them back at a later point, likely for a much higher price than a promotion or bonus)?
The answer is rooted in development for your managers.
Create specific training for managers on what actions to take when presented with new ideas. Coach managers to ask better questions when being challenged on the status quo. The more you develop your leaders to see the value in elevating their team’s unknown potential, the greater your chances are to succeed into an unknown future.
Encourage Dedicated Innovation Time
Companies and managers have absolutely no problem loading calendars with meetings, meetings for meetings, and meetings to recap meetings. However, what if you freed up your talent to flex their creativity, have the time to consider efficiencies, or develop the next big idea?
Silly idea, right? Creative thinking time?
Tell that to 3M. The Minnesota-based juggernaut implemented Fifteen percent time to encourage employees to use fifteen percent of their paid work time daydreaming or brainstorming. Not only could this be the time that your employees develop a new idea, but it also allows them to keep the flame burning to stay passionate for their work.
People are like goldfish - they grow to the size of their environment. If you challenge them to operate their day-to-day role in less time and encourage more time for intentional creative time and growth opportunity, they might surprise you.
Do us a favor, jot that idea down on a 3M Post-It Note and keep it handy.
Hack the Company
This section is not written to cause panic in your Chief Security or Information Officer, but to motivate everyone in any department.
Hackathons are typically leveraged by technology gurus to collaborate, analyze, and create new software or improve on current versions.
However, what if you had a hackathon in the marketing department to uncover new or better ways to communicate and bring in leads? What about the finance department to optimize reporting and or streamline billing for clients? Hold your breath on this one: how about hacking the executive leadership to identify ways to optimize time and move speed on improvements to the company?
People are like goldfish - they grow to the size of their environment...
Don’t think for one second that technology is the only area that can and should be analyzed for opportunity and improvement. You likely can leverage learnings and trim wasteful activities for optimized business growth.
Diversify Your View Through Inclusion
It’s not only the embracing of intrapreneurs that is critical to tapping internal innovation, it’s who the intrapreneurs are that matters the most.
While companies are improving DEI initiatives, focus areas on leadership are still lacking greatly. A report by Circa shares that only 65% of companies have a focused program on DEI leadership. In that same report, they call out that diversity of thought and team structure increases culture elements such as company performance, morale and, wait for it, innovation!
While it’s critical to ensure that the teams are diverse when approaching internal innovation, inclusivity and the essential need to create a safe “speak up” culture.
In this article from Strategy + Business, they share that truly inclusive leaders are those “who create a ‘speak-up culture’ where members of their teams feel welcome and included, free to share their ideas and opinions, and confident that their ideas are heard and recognized.” Without this type of culture, some of your most valuable insights could very well go muted simply because your employees do not feel valued in sharing their thoughts.
Create a Supportive Culture
Nothing improves within a company until a culture of true support and nurturing is solidified.
The expectations of promoting change must start from the top. At times, it may mean that the leadership needs to step aside to encourage intrapreneurship. That intentional act of opening the door for innovation will be one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, culture changes you can implement.
...small changes and testing minor ideas can lead to innovation and efficiency.
Contrary to belief (and fear), ideas don’t always have to be seismic in nature. Leaders need to understand that small changes and testing minor ideas can lead to innovation and efficiency.
In an interview with McKinsey, Intuit cofounder and Chairman, Scott Cook, had this to say about how they handle intrapreneurs and innovation:
“…we put in a series of systems and a culture where the expectation is that if there’s an idea that someone’s passionate about, we put in a system to make it easy and fast and cheap for them to run an experiment. Strip it down to what leap-of-faith assumption you want to prove, and how you can run an experiment next week or next month, at virtually no resources, to test that idea. Nothing signals more strongly to your organization that you want your employees’ ideas. And a culture of experimentation can only work when it’s put in place by leaders. The innovators can’t do it.”
Now, imagine this type of encouragement at your organization. This type of leadership approach breeds positivity, accountability, and passion for improvement.
Be a Leader, Not a Manager
None of the recommendations above come easily, quickly, or without change, especially in larger organizations. But as much as companies love calling themselves innovative, they also adore the idea of being known as having an environment full of leaders.
Encourage your leaders to find their intrapreneurs. Train them on how to best motivate intrapreneurs when they find one on their team. Encourage them to be curious enough to hear diverse perspectives and self-aware enough to know when their ego is getting in the way of progress.
If you’re ready for change, consider this quote from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup:
“Nobody is a leader for the sake of keeping things as they are. The essence of leadership is change, and proactivity is the fuel for any force of change.”
Rich Bracken is a TEDx keynote speaker and marketing executive who helps organizations maximize their leadership and strengthen their culture & strategy through his presentations and curated content on emotional intelligence. He assists companies in ridding themselves of toxic culture, optimize communication and teamwork, and provides guidance so that each individual can live their happiest life, both personally and professionally. Through his work as a speaker, consultant, and media personality, he has worked with Fortune 100 companies, global organizations, and publications to create positive, effective cultures. You can learn more about Rich at richbracken.com.
Megan Galloway is the founder of Everleader, a talent development and consulting firm. She is a culture leader who believes all companies can unlock fulfillment and engagement for their people with a human-focused strategy. She specializes in learning and development growth at organizations that have not formally had talent development programs. Previously, she's led three ground-up training programs, including one that was recognized as #19 in the ATD Best Awards. You can learn more about Megan at everleaderconsulting.com.