Driving innovation from within a company

Innovation and entrepreneurship are usually associated with lean, mean start-ups. But you don't need to go it alone to use your entrepreneurial skills. You could do it within your company as an intrapreneur.

More and more big companies are starting to realise that harnessing their employees’ ideas, passions and creativity leads to big innovations - what Steve Jobs called 'going back to the garage'.

Richard Branson, in particular, is a big fan of intrapreneurship. "While it's true that every company needs an entrepreneur to get it under way, healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs who drive new projects and explore new and unexpected directions for business development," he says.

Take Virgin Atlantic’s project to improve the reclining chairs on its planes. Big design firms tried and failed. Then a bright young designer already at Virgin, Joe Ferry, volunteered to give it a go. He was given a free hand – and the result was the herringbone-configured Virgin private sleeper suites. Richard says that allowing Ferry to run with his creativity "put us years ahead of the pack and made for millions of very happy horizontal fliers."

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So how do you put your entrepreneurial skills to work within a structure of a big company? It’s easier if your company already encourages innovation. Google’s famous for its '20 per cent time' – allowing employees time to work on other ideas that might benefit the company – but 20 per cent time is more of a way of thinking than a policy, says Google Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock in his book, Work Rules.

"In some ways, the idea of 20 per cent time is more important than the reality of it," he writes. "It operates somewhat outside the lines of formal management oversight, and always will, because the most talented and creative people can't be forced to work."

But being the intrapreneur within a more traditional big company can be tough. A report from Accenture found that while 75 per cent of big companies see themselves as entrepreneurial, 75 per cent of entrepreneurs who worked at big companies left because they didn’t feel they could be entrepreneurial there. 

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Getting others involved is crucial, so try and seek out like-minded people within your organisation – Steve Jobs wouldn’t have been able to build the Apple 1 without his co-founder Steve Wozniak. Try to think outside your immediate department and open yourself up to new people. 

As technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhawa says, the key to Silicon Valley’s success is "an open-minded and diverse population that readily shares information, encourages experimentation, accepts failure and dispenses with formality and hierarchy."

So make yourself visible. Step up and help management see how your idea or project could benefit the whole company, not just your own CV. 

Edward Haller, author of Intrapreneurship Ignities Innovation, writes that a successful intrapreneur will innovate and take the initiative. He suggests leading discussions in meetings and prompting groups to think of new perspectives by asking open-ended questions, such as simply: "What would happen if we tried this?"

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Or start by coming up with ways in which the company could encourage intrapreneurship. The Accenture report, Harnessing the Power of Entrepreneurs to Benefit Innovation, suggests seconding employees to start-ups, and encouraging them to work on their own side projects.

If your company is afraid of change, it takes courage to be the one who drives it. So be prepared to be willing to go the extra mile to prove yourself. Ride out that initial resistance, advises Nicole Yershon, Director of Innovative Solutions at Ogilvy Group Advertising, who created Ogilvy Labs to encourage innovation within the company. It won’t last once people realise that you’re right.

"There is always a lot of fear from people within an organisation who resist change," she says. "But if you go through the pain barrier for about three months, then the new becomes the norm."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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