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Strategies and Techniques for an Agile, Intrapreneurial Workplace

February 12, 2021 Leadership
scott clark
By Scott Clark

Companies are looking for a few good entrepreneurs. Well, more than a few actually.

Aiming to mimic the success of tech startups, some companies are creating internal entrepreneurship programs to increase employee empowerment and innovation, cut time-to-market for products and services, enhance strategic agility and boost ROI.

Often called intrapreneurship, the success of these internal programs depends on many factors, including motivated, supportive leaders with a clear purpose and employees that believe in the company's vision. 

Intrapreneurship is the mother of many of the concepts that business leaders value today, said Khadim Batti, CEO of Whatfix, a SaaS-based user onboarding platform. “Intrapreneurship has given birth to some of the world's best ideas and products, including the now iconic Like button of Facebook," he said. "In 2015, the Like button was an outcome of an all-night hackathon.”

Here are some techniques and strategies for creating an agile, intrapreneurial workplace.

Start With Leaders

Leaders play a critical role in developing the intrapreneurial spirit, said Tom Huberty, chief excellence and encouragement officer of Huberty Performance Learning, a Minneapolis management consulting firm. “The best leaders develop a compelling vision and then enlist the passion of their employees to catch fire,” Huberty said.

Ideally that vision is tied into a culture of continuous improvement in products or services, he said. “If the leaders have defined a credible vision, communicated it well throughout the entire organization and supported the vision with key objectives and action plans, individuals will see how their ideas can be leveraged to accomplish the organization’s objectives,” Huberty said.

Providing a way for employees to make suggestions for improvement is vital, provided their suggestions are taken seriously. Supervisor review and support for potential implementation is essential to making it work. “The organization should have a well-defined and documented process for an individual to make a suggestion, ‘a great idea,’ with the first step of the process to gain the supervisors’ support of the idea,” said Huberty.

This method of implementing an intrapreneurial attitude is not unique to enterprise businesses and has been used to drive innovation in many industries, including the military. “Several years ago, quality improvement programs among military contractors led to formalized ‘Beneficial Suggestion’ systems,” said Huberty. “A whole menu of awards supported the ‘Bennie Suggs’ system. Even today, employee suggestions drive innovations in retail and other industries.”

At Infragistics, CEO and founder Dean Guida set up an innovation fund to support intrapreneurs at the UI/UX software company. It's important that employees be allowed to experiment without having to worry about ROI, he said. “As Infragistics enters its fourth decade with 250 employees worldwide, we’ve set out to keep the spirit of innovation alive by investing in the company's next big ideas and the internal inventors and entrepreneurs responsible for their success,” he said. 

By creating the fund, which allocates money to projects outside the scope of Infragistics’ everyday working capital, the company is able to take products from concept to prototype to finished product.

Related Article: Having a Vision Is Not Enough, You Need a Shared Common Vision

Hire for Entrepreneurial DNA

Leaders who have a clear vision are more apt to attract employees who believe in what they are doing. Those employees are not simply taking a job to make money. Rather, they are working for a cause and will work harder to see the business succeed because they believe in it.

Those highly engaged employees are most likely to become intrapreneurs. It's important to proactively seek out people who share that vision and passion. “Managers should hire for energetic talent that has the DNA of entrepreneurs,” said Huberty.

Companies should hire "51 percenters," Huberty said, borrowing a phrase popularized by Shake Shack founder and New York City-based restaurateur Danny Meyer in his book "Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business." The ideal hire should have 49 percent of the technical ability but 51 percent of the emotional skills, centered in five areas: optimistic warmth, intelligence, work ethic, empathy, self-awareness and integrity.

Companies that see success from intrapreneurial programs pair that DNA with supportive management and a defined process, Huberty said. A good example of this is St. Paul, Minn.-based manufacturer 3M, where scientists and engineers are allowed to devote 15% of their work time to projects and products that stimulate their interests. This policy led 3M employee Arthur Fry, who wanted to use "something sticky" to mark the pages of his choir hymnal, to create Post-It notes.

Related Article: Digital Hiring May Become the Rule Instead of the Exception

Prioritize Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion enhance employee productivity, loyalty, creativity and innovation, and enable employees to evaluate different perspectives and opportunities when presented with challenges or obstacles. For intrapreneurship initiatives, these differing perspectives can be the difference between success and failure.

"We believe that when you have diversity on your team you will come up with better solutions as a company,” said Guida. “That is why we have created a global company and have teams across seven different countries/cultures. This allows us to build software for the world and have diverse perspectives on our software and greater problem-solving ability."

Saleema Vellani, professor of design thinking and chief innovation strategist at Innovazing, a leadership development program consultancy, said empathy is the engine of innovation. "To innovate, we often have to learn from those that we had the least in common with and that comes through empathy," she said.

Research has shown a positive two-way correlation, with diversity driving innovation and innovation reinforcing diversity and inclusion, Vellani added.

Not only does diversity impact innovation, the additional perspectives that arise open up new opportunities for growth. “I truly believe that diversity increases perspectives when it comes to intrapreneurial challenges," Huberty said. "Fostering inclusive ideas will uncover underdeveloped markets and approaches to those markets.”

Related Article: Embrace Diversity and Inclusion for an Improved Employee Experience

Invest in Employee Development

Two of the biggest challenges to the intrapreneurial workplace are a failure to invest in employees and fear of failure. Batti said having an agile and intrapreneurial workplace comes down to two key factors: having the right digital tools in place, and investing in adoption of those tools.

“Without the proper know-how, the tools meant to propel us forward may end up holding us back," he said. "Investing in your employees is the smartest thing you can do and it’s important to do it right.”

Intrapreneurship and innovation are risky and prone to fail, but failure is part of the process and must be recognized and celebrated as a learning experience. Companies cannot be afraid to fail and leaders must be willing to support employees who take the risks necessary for innovation. 

“Going hand in hand with this is the right culture — a culture that embraces failure,” Batti said. “It is up to senior leadership to foster a culture that encourages employees to be innovative in trying new ways of working and taking on riskier projects. This may bring about initial failure but that’s OK because intrapreneurship happens when we embrace initial failure on the path to success.”

Without innovation, companies stagnate and fail to grow. Intrapreneurship provides employees with opportunities for learning, professional growth and leadership, and leads to higher satisfaction. For companies, intrapreneurship brings enhanced employee engagement and productivity, faster time to market, enhanced strategic agility and competitive advantage.

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