April 8, 2019

Our go-to email service, which is currently Google’s Gmail, might not have existed if the tech giant hadn’t invested in the talents of Paul Buchheit. A computer engineer who was Google’s 23rd employee, Paul is the man behind Gmail—the first email service with a search function that launched in the noughties. It wouldn’t have transpired if Google hadn’t granted its employees a few hours each week to work on personal, innovative projects. As a result, Paul became the quintessential example of a successful intrapreneur.

Coined in 1978 by Gifford Pinchot III, an intrapreneur (inside entrepreneur) is an employee working for a large organisation who operates like an entrepreneur. Rather than being a mere follower, an intrapreneur takes careful risks, solves problems, and innovates in new ways. Gifford called them “dreamers who do”. Most entrepreneurs strike out on their own to establish start-ups because they’re most likely doing something that no one has ever done before, something that doesn’t follow the traditional, tried-and-tested path.

Established corporations may have once felt threatened by these New Age ideas, but now, it’s more crucial than ever to stay ahead of the competition with the likes of Silicon Valley. Companies are thus looking towards intrapreneurs to push their business forward. Not only does this keep the firm at the forefront of its market, but it also helps to retain talented individuals by encouraging and funding their passion projects, unexpected endeavours and new-fangled ideas.

To fan their entrepreneurial flames, these workers are granted autonomy to realise their aspirations. In exchange, whatever new products and services they create will be released under the company’s brand. If the investment proves to be a worthy one, the company would’ve grown its overall profit and potentially dodged the bullet of going out of business. This is essentially the baseline goal of every corporation.

Having said that, a company has to be willing to introduce and invest in innovation first, if they want to reap the rewards of cultivating an intrapreneurial work culture. This might mean having an open-minded, astute CEO who is plugged into the latest trends in business, and isn’t resistant to change. More importantly, they have to be equipped with extraordinary foresight. What looks like a mockery to someone might look like the key to the future. Even the most commonplace mainstays of the 21st century such as light bulbs and digital photography were once laughed off as absurd.

A discerning leader would see potential in the least likely of places. Following that is the manner in which they treat their employees, who are walking treasure troves of ideas. The problem is unlocking them. A possible way to do that is to present more opportunities for your workers to exercise their creativity, be it through internal contests such as hackathons, datapaloozas and hands-on labs, or regular brainstorm sessions where there’s no such thing as a stupid idea.

It also helps to develop the expertise of existing employees, putting them through training that diversifies each individual’s skill set, even if it goes beyond the scope of their work. Particularly useful for lower level staff members, it equips them with the knowledge and confidence to one day pitch a game-changer to the company’s major decision-makers.

Another key ingredient to fostering intrapreneurship is a sense of freedom in the workplace. Employees need to feel liberated from certain company mandates that may stifle and limit their expression. The beauty of being an entrepreneur is that anything is possible, but when you’re still collecting pay cheques from your boss, your ideas may still revolve around not jeopardising your job. In other words, employees, who feel stuck in a hierarchy at work, end up serving their bosses, not the solutions. They feel more motivated to appease and please their superiors, than actually creating something revolutionary.

As an antidote to that, you could introduce a more laid-back approach in the workplace. Empower intrapreneurs with the freedom to experiment and make mistakes without consequence, and leave them to do what they know best without breathing down their necks. They don’t need someone telling them what’s right and wrong, especially in the incubation and exploration phase. Rather, they need to feel ownership, like they’re in charge of this separate project.

Still, status updates are necessary to make sure everyone is on track. While submitting formal progress reports has long been the protocol for larger firms, there’s no harm in employing more casual methods (for instance, regular one-on-one conversations to catch up on any developments). This maintains autonomy and informality between employee and employer, breaking down the barriers of hierarchy to encourage communication. 

Follow in the steps of corporate giants such as Google, and convert your run-of-the-mill executives into intrapreneurs, maximising your greatest resources for the good of the business.