How to break down the barriers and allow intrapreneurs to flourish

Virgin is a prime example of a company that would not have been able to develop into hundreds of different businesses without encouraging a number of intrapreneurs, or what I like to call ‘firestarters’, within its ranks.

Intrapreneurs are responsible for innovating inside a company, sometimes with the luxury of greater levels of funding than they may be able to access as an entrepreneur. However depending on the company culture, they may not always be afforded the same freedoms as an entrepreneur. The internal entrepreneur must therefore be skilled in the art of navigating barriers to the conversion of an idea into a sustainable innovation. What then are the typical barriers to getting your idea off the ground inside a company?

Selling your idea

Novel concepts are by their nature fragile and must be communicated clearly and potently to those who must sponsor them. If your concept is complex, it’s of vital importance that you communicate the concept simply to those who will advance funds, people and time to develop the idea.

We frequently see how complex concepts fail in the Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank. Of course these shows are not real life and you are normally given more time to pitch your idea at work. Nonetheless, simplicity, brevity and potency are key to capturing the interest of your sponsors. Try the seven words test - can you explain the raw essence of your idea in seven words or less? If you can do that, then getting five minutes to explain your idea, it’s unique qualities and long term benefits is going to be much easier. 

Never give up

Spence Silver took 15 years to convince 3M that his idea for “a glue that wouldn’t stick” was a winner (The 3M Post It Note). Ken Kutaragi nearly lost his job at Sony Corporation when he worked for Nintendo in his spare time developing what became the Sony PlayStation. Kutaragi found a product champion in the form of Norio Ohga, Sony’s CEO, who recognised his creativity, when most of the senior management team saw his project as a distraction rather than a serious piece of new product development.

 By 1998, the PlayStation provided 40% of Sony’s profits. The lesson here is to play the long game. Overnight successes as an intrapreneur is the exception, not the rule. However the type of persistence we are talking about here is not the “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” type. I call this headbanging, aka “doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result”. I prefer this maxim “If at first you don’t succeed, try something different” – this is a kind of flexible persistence, which requires emotional resilience.

Tight fit or misfit?

By their very nature, novel ideas often appear to be outside the scope of the current business strategy, unless you have a leader like Sir Richard Branson who encourages a more divergent approach to intrapreneurship. Most new product and service innovation succeeds because the product or service augments or is consonant in some way with existing approaches.

So, you can increase the probability of adoption of your idea by demonstrating how it fits in. When Akio Morita introduced the Sony Walkman, he considered the lifestyle compatibility issue by making shirts with a pocket designed to hold the device, thus solving the problem of “where to put it?”. Always think about the way in which your idea will be used and ensure that it fits in with the social and technical systems, which will improve adoption.

Time and timing

Timing in the innovation game is everything. Da Vinci ‘invented’ the Helicopter several centuries too late! I used to work for Sir Trevor Jones at The Wellcome Foundation, a philanthropic pharmaceutical company which was devoted to innovation. He had a “too difficult” in-tray, for ideas that people had submitted that could not be implemented due to various issues including timing.

He systematically recycled the items in the “too difficult” pile so that they could be launched when timing favoured their introduction as an intrapreneur.

The other vital issue is securing sufficient time to work on your idea, in order to convert it into an innovation. Pharmaceutical company Roche take the view that intrapreneurs must be allowed time to innovate and have applied the '20% bootlegging principle', originally developed by serial innovators 3M - later adopted by Google. Basically, this allows intrapreneurs to spend 20% of their time on non-job related speculative projects. Intrapreneurship has delivered Gmail and Google News amongst other innovations within Google.

You are not an island

Sir Richard Branson may live on Necker Island, but he gets out all over the world to look for ideas. In the same way, it’s no good behaving like you are an island as an intrapreneur. You need to diffuse and spread your ideas widely in the company to build up support. Get out and talk to people who can help you spread your idea. Many companies use innovation champions to support intrapreneurs. 

A champion will help you diffuse your idea within the company and may help you when the night is darkest. Virgin Atlantic’s herringbone-designed private sleeper suites were the result of the championing of the work of young designer Joe Ferry. Richard Branson said that Joe’s work put the airline years ahead of the pack and made for millions of very happy horizontal fliers.

Internal combustion

To sum up, it is worth reminding ourselves of Clark’s Law of Revolutionary Ideas in terms of becoming a 'firestarter'.

Every new idea, be it in science, politics, art or any other field, evokes three stages of reaction:

“It’s impossible. Don’t waste my time”

“It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing”

“I said it was a good idea all along”

The intrapreneur successfully manages these barriers to convert a promising idea into a sustainable innovation.

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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