Intrapreneurship and Structure

We’re big fans of intrapreneurship; the chance to bring entrepreneurial zeal to departments and companies. Here, Mike debunks the myths that hold intrapreneurship back, to make sure that both a company and its intrapreneurs can live side by side.

Two myths are often trotted out against intrapreneurship. We don’t know if the people doing this trotting do so because they actually believe the myths, or whether they invent the myths because they have other motives, such as jealousy, for opposing intrapreneurship. Either way, they are dangerous.

The first of these myths is that intrapreneurship is an ‘all or nothing’ phenomenon. It’s one of those ‘slippery slope’ arguments – once you start letting ‘these people’ loose in your organization, all hell will break loose; they’ll waste disproportionate amounts of time and money; everybody else will become envious, clamouring, ‘why can’t we follow our ideas too?’

This fear may have had some basis during the dotcom era. That old slogan ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’ was popular then – a nasty little slogan that vilifies useful, hard-working but unimaginative people. It has now disappeared, and we’re delighted. Organizations are full of good people doing good work who don’t really want to change. Let them carry on. They will need to be led through change at some time – an exciting challenge for leaders – but can’t be and shouldn’t be expected to instigate change.

That’s a job for intrapreneurs. Good intrapreneurs don’t set themselves up as enemies of the system, but work within it. They may well step outside the system from time to time – for example the man behind the Sony PlayStation who organized a covert meeting with Sony’s greatest rivals – but largely they stick to the rules (or appear to, anyway, which is what matters for everyone else’s morale). They are no direct threat to existing structures. There is no slippery slope.

In the long run, of course, they will effect much more change than the noisiest rebel, but the change will appear just to happen – not through some mystical force, but because the intrapreneurial process has been well managed, to allow good ideas to flourish and poor ones to fade quickly. Great intrapreneurs should end up the heroes and heroines of the company, though right now they are too busy quietly getting on with their enterprises.

The second myth is that intrapreneurship means a ‘chosen few’ who have the freedom to go off and do whatever they want. Actually, the intrapreneurial start-up has to be done alongside the ordinary job. This is good: it makes the intrapreneur really fight for and value their time. Later on, once the idea is clearly working, good managers will give intrapreneurs more space and time (and ultimately all the time they need).

Intrapreneurial projects, like conventional projects, need to be monitored. Conventional projects tend to be set strict financial targets: the intraprise needs something looser, but still real. Start-ups, whether corporate or entrepreneurial, are essentially leaps into the dark, and often encounter unexpected difficulties that can make a mockery of tight financial targets. (A key entrepreneurial skill lies in knowing when an unexpected difficulty is fatal to the enterprise, or is something that can be navigated round – at which point, it can become an ally, as a barrier to entry or a signpost to some customer ‘pain’ not initially perceived by the enterprising team.) Hurdles or milestones are the right metrics for intraprise. Especially to start with, these are about people, not profits or even workability. Does a critical mass of competent people believe in the idea? Then it’s about customers: do enough of them see value here? These may not be as black and white as financial targets, but they are still targets that have to be hit – or else…

So don’t let a ‘straw man’ be set up, that intraprise is a kind of cop-out from management and organizational discipline. The opposite is true: the right systems and controls need to be in place for intraprise to flourish. We stress, of course, the word ‘right’.


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