Why every business should give staff 'dabble time'

Entrepreneurs live for those Eureka moments that spark their next big business idea. But the most successful entrepreneurs thrive on seeing those around them, colleagues and employees, experiencing those light bulb moments…

For while it falls to the founder to get a new business off the ground, successful growth often relies on the company’s internal entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, to inspire new projects and explore new areas for business expansion.

As Richard Branson once asked: "What if CEO stood for ‘chief enabling officer’? What if that CEO's primary role were to nurture a breed of intrapreneurs who would grow into tomorrow's entrepreneurs?"

The Virgin Group is no stranger to intrapreneurship; both Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Mobile benefited from the efforts of intrapreneurs who’d been given the freedom to come up with ideas for solving problems and breaking into new markets. Google takes a similar approach, allowing staff some ‘dabble time’, and reaping the rewards; Paul Buchheit famously used his to dream up the idea for Gmail.

It was intrapreneurs at 3M who devised Post-It Notes, and at Lockheed Martin where they blueprinted some famous aircraft designs. Even if they don’t innovate the next big commercial success for the company, intrapreneurs and their ideas can save the company money, increase revenue and streamline business processes. And it definitely isn’t all just about large companies.

Haulage firm Freight First employs 17 office staff and 30 drivers, and every one of them is empowered to create ‘WOW’ moments for their customers. Examples have included sending a masseuse to a client who had run an ultra-marathon the previous day, and sending a match-worn and signed Duncan Ferguson football shirt to another.

Marketing co-ordinator Dan Atherton said: "In the haulage industry, where customer service often ‘goes missing’ we are leading the way in providing service that goes above and beyond the industry average."

Every one of our employees has a start-up inside them and thrives by working for and alongside trailblazers

Marketing agency Albion, has worked with some of Europe's most successful entrepreneurs from major brands such as Skype, Innocent Drinks, and Zoopla. The company employs around 100 people and says it owes a lot of its success to its intrapreneurial employees.

Founder and CEO Jason Goodman says: "Intrapreneurship is important, not just because it ensures we understand where our clients are coming from, but also because our people are happier when we encourage and celebrate their passion. Every one of our employees has a start-up inside them and thrives by working for and alongside trailblazers."

Two of the company’s biggest intrapreneurial success stories include Code Club, now a national network of after-school coding clubs for kids, founded by Albion employee Clare Sutcliffe, and Milltag, a cycle wear outfitters, founded by Ed Cowburn, another Albion employee. If there is a downside to encouraging employees to innovate it is the potential risk of losing them. 

Both Sutcliffe and Cowburn left Albion to pursue their respective business ventures full time. But Goodman believes in seeing the bigger picture.

He says: "Our employees know that if they want to leave to pursue their own project or business the door is never shut, and we'll help them however we can, not just with advice and support but even potentially co-investing, or connecting them with venture capitalists."

Nevertheless, a lot of business owners struggle with intrapreneurship, perhaps fearing a loss of control. But unless they can learn to 'let go' and give aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to take some risks, they could be missing out on even greater opportunities for their business.

Micromanagement is the biggest killer of intrapreneurial productivity

Lawrence Jones, CEO of web hosting firm UKFast believes that micromanagement is the biggest killer of intrapreneurial productivity.

He says: "It stifle’s people creativity. Who has ever had a great idea and the confidence to shout about it with someone standing over them and breathing down their neck? You need a culture of internal entrepreneurialism, with dynamic, innovative people on board. Running a business is hard enough; if you’re innovative, you can remove some of the rigidity that stifles growth and creativity."

As much as they are admired for their creative prowess, entrepreneurs are revered for their pragmatic attitude to the risk of failure.

And they must be equally prepared to allow their intrepreneurs to fail, says Tim Taylor, director of leadership development firm Making Great Leaders.

He says: "Trial and error is part and parcel of the process, as it would be for an entrepreneur going it alone. Leaders must espouse the value of failing and learning and celebrate teams and individuals who have the courage to go for it."

One area where intrepreneurs can have the upper hand in the ‘risk of failure’ stakes, says Taylor, is the support they receive from management, encouraging and motivating them to carry on and try again.

"Ultimately," he says. "Everyone in the business has a vested interest in the outcome."

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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