Managing Intrapreneurs

Friday, October 4, 2013 - 07:42

By Leon Gettler

Many companies are now looking to intrapreneurship as a way of building greater staff engagement. Intrapreneurship is about getting employees to act like entrepreneurs within a larger organisation, getting them to devote time to specific projects. It’s a strategy that requires deft management skills.

Writing in Forbes, Dan Schawbel says intrapreneurship is responsible for a lot of product innovation around the world today. Examples include the Post-It notes developed at 3M and at Google, they came up with Google News, AdSense and Gmail.

So where are we most likely to see this trend? According to the European Journal of Business and Social Sciences, companies that invest heavily in research and development are more likely to encourage intrapreneurs.

American management expert Ken Blanchard says managers play a crucial role here. They are particularly important for setting boundaries.

“While their ideas and their affinity for experimentation have merit, intrapreneurs can be highly disruptive if the timing is wrong. An organisation needs to be at a point in its growth and evolution to seriously contemplate these new ideas, without placing at risk its entire survival. Some stakeholders will feel that their agendas may be undermined because people, energy, and resources will be diverted to support new, edgy ideas that may never materialise into viable revenue streams. It can become political—a contest of wills…

“The inherent conflict between those who get it and those who don’t usually results in distrust or mistrust. Without open communications and strong leadership to define the playing field and decision authority, relationships between intrapreneurs and “the rest of the world” can quickly deteriorate. When senior leaders don’t intervene quickly enough to reset the trust, the mistrust among key stakeholders within the organisation may become redirected toward the senior leadership team. Who’s calling the shots here? Who’s spending our resources? Who’s watching our brand? Who’s taking care of our customers? The positive force of intrapreneurship can unintentionally create a combative environment of win-lose. For organisations wanting to cultivate intrapreneurship, make sure there is open communication, clear lines of authority, and clear assignments of responsibility.”

Managing an intrapreneur would not be easy because big companies tend to value conformity, something intrapreneurs shun. Intrapreneurs break the rules. They think differently, challenge norms and create enormous problems for the conventional manager who wants everything running smoothly.

But Gifford Pinchot, president of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, a post-graduate MBA school in the United States, says managers don’t have a choice.

“First of all,” he said, “these managers have already hired intrapreneurs because the propensity for intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship is present in about 10 per cent of the population. So, it’s likely there are already people there with those tendencies.

“Secondly, intrapreneurs don’t tend to leave the organisation until their ideas have been blocked repeatedly. So long as managers support and respect the intrapreneurs, and so long as the intrapreneurs think they will be able to do new and innovative things inside the company, they will probably stay.”

All companies already have natural intrapreneurs. Some are obvious, but most are hiding. But what’s important is that they can revitalise the company. They are the corporate innovators. So what should managers look out for?

Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai at the Harvard Business Review tell us they are not motivated by money, they just want to make a difference. They are constantly contemplating ideas, formulating and visualising a series of solutions in their head and they exude high self-awareness and sense of purpose.