Industry-leading companies around the world practice successful intrapreneurship. Of course, not all companies — leaders or laggards — subscribe to intrapreneurship, though the number of intrapreneurs is increasing in organizations both large and small because of the measurable value they create. Organizations that embrace intrapreneurship can expect to witness the game-changing outcomes produced when talented teams are allowed to adapt the attitudes, mirror the behaviors and perform the actions of entrepreneurs while operating inside an organization’s existing operational structure.
Just like with other organizational practices, intrapreneurial success starts with effective leadership. Specifically, intrapreneurial success is traced to the effectiveness of leaders who understand the importance of assembling entrepreneurially minded employees and giving them the freedom, autonomy and resources to get the job done. These leaders have demonstrated their commitment to accelerating success by embracing the best-practices methods that produce profitable, replicable success.
A best-practices approach calls for the deployment of independent and autonomous teams. These teams consist of highly motivated and deeply talented employees, known as intrapreneurs. The intrapreneurs who comprise teams are most always expert in their fields and are usually seasoned employees in the organization. It helps when intrapreneurs are expert and seasoned because intrapreneurial teams’ mandate is to fast-track the organization’s innovations and super-charge its go-to-market effort strategies and tactics. That is why the profile of a successful intrapreneur mirrors that of the employee who possesses the institutional knowledge of how things get done in the organization combined with the skills and experience of a subject matter expert.
Successful intrapreneurial teams are usually independent from the rest of the organization’s operations. Independence allows teams to move fast and break things; their independence from other parts of the organization insulates the rest of the organization from the oftentimes disruptive practices and unconventional methods that are inherent in intrapreneurial activities.
Most successful intrapreneurial teams are bestowed with ample resources. The time, money, equipment, talent and degrees of freedom from which they operate are indicative of the level of support bestowed by the organization’s leaders. If leadership is committed to intrapreneurial activities, the type of support it bestows on intrapreneurial teams is usually more patient than what is given to non-intrapreneurial teams. That is because the leadership expects oversized returns on the investments made in intrapreneurial activities.
The term intrapreneurship was coined decades ago. Skunk Works™ is a term Lockheed Martin used in 1943 to describe a team of talented engineers who were given a high degree of autonomy to work on secret projects. Equally famous, 3M’s intrapreneurial efforts produced the Post-it note. Google’s “X” is the company’s “moonshot factory” and represents another example of intrapreneurship pursued by an industry-leading organization. The intrapreneurial initiative has produced innovations like Gmail and continues to pursue cutting-edge research in fields as diverse as energy, communications, autonomous technologies and global warming.
Over the years, companies have attempted to create and operate intrapreneurial teams within their organizations. Most all of them do so to conceive and commercialize new innovations or to accelerate the expansion of existing product lines and service offerings already in the marketplace.
I think a lot about who intrapreneurs. Namely, I think about who they are, what they do, and how they act and the leaders who empower them. In my view, intrapreneurs make decisions, often when mired in uncertainty. Without much assurance of success, leaders who invest in intrapreneurial activities in their organizations do so by deploying assets on projects with no clearly identified path to success. And, both intrapreneurs and the leaders who support them embrace, rather than run away from, work that just may not work out.
This brings me to two Gainesville-based companies and their experiences with intrapreneurship. Senior leaders at Infinite Energy Inc. (IEI) and SumTotal Systems (SumTotal) provided examples of how their organizations deploy and leverage intrapreneurial teams. Thanks to Darin Cook and Doug Bianchi of Infinite Energy and to Jeff Lyons of SumTotal for their insights and perspectives on how intrapreneurship operates within their respective organizations.
Let’s look at Infinite Energy. The company supplies natural gas to residential, commercial and industrial customers in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, and New York, as well as electricity to residential, commercial and industrial customers in Texas. The company was founded in 1994 and is based in Gainesville with additional employees in Georgia and Texas.
Doug Bianchi, chief operating officer of IEI, provided insightful comments about intrapreneurship at the company. According to Bianchi, “Intrapreneurship is a management philosophy that encourages employees within an organization to behave as if they were entrepreneurs. Intrapreneurship encourages employees to take risks in order to foster innovation and improvement within an organization.”
Bianch’s quote describes how IEI fosters intrapreneurship. The company’s leadership creates an environment of open, transparent communication and autonomy. IEI’s success — evident by both the company’s bottom line and its stewardship in the communities it serves — is largely founded in the accompanying examples provided by both Doug and Darin Cook, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of IEI:
- Executive Open-Door Policy: IEI has an open-door policy in which employees can speak with any executive about anything that is on their minds. Employees often share ideas and insights to better the organization.
- Electronic Suggestion Box: IEI maintains an electronic suggestion box where employees can submit ideas, questions, concerns, etc. These suggestions are immediately received by all executives, and they respond within two business days if the employee chooses to leave their name.
- Monthly Town Hall: IEI invites all employees to a monthly town hall, which is an opportunity for direct face-to-face communication between executives and employees; this promotes the discussion of company goals, events and any other relevant matters.
- Executive Mentorship Program: Every year, IEI offers an executive mentorship program in which interested employees are each assigned an executive mentor to meet with throughout the year. Among many other topics, employees are coached on how to be effective change agents within the organization.
- Cross-Department Think Tanks: IEI frequently allows employees to create cross-department think tanks to brainstorm ways to improve the organization. These think tanks have led to the adoption of significant initiatives such as the formation of a Contract Assessment Team (CAT), which combined the duties of four previously distinct teams. The implementation of the CAT team dramatically shortened the length of time and cost to process a contract.
Next, let’s look at SumTotal Systems. The company is dedicated to partnering with its customers to create great places to work. SumTotal breaks down barriers while rejecting complexity and embracing simplicity; the company believes people want to give their best and be great at their jobs. So, by giving people the tools to do their jobs, SumTotal enables customers to have the freedom to imagine — and dream — whatever they and their businesses can do.
Jeff Lyons, senior vice president of global professional services, offered examples of how intrapreneurship is encouraged, conducted and strengthened at SumTotal:
- New Offerings: Empowered service delivery owners to create new offerings targeted at previously unserved markets. For example, SumTotal created a new workforce management offering for the small-to-medium business space — for which SumTotal did not offer a solution previously. This was created as a “skunk works” project by the leader of SumTotal’s workforce professional services team.
- University of Florida: SumTotal regularly engages senior design project groups from the University of Florida. The UF student groups analyze SumTotal’s business activities and suggest process improvements. This intrapreneurial-centric activity has resulted in material improvements in the company’s internal methodologies.
- Bottom Up Approach: Methods also impact SumTotal’s marketplace-facing activities. For SumTotal’s consulting teams, team members are empowered to deliver services for improving and refining processes and procedures based on their successes and challenges.
- Developer Bashes: SumTotal’s product engineering group periodically sponsors internal developer bashes. These initiatives give team members time to work on self-directed, quick-win projects that are undertaken to improve the company’s product functionality.
The examples provided by the two companies reflect how intrapreneurship is practiced in the organizations. And, like Infinite Energy and SumTotal, industry-leading organizations use intrapreneurs as catalysts of innovation and entrepreneurship to help them compete in competitive industries. In most organizations, intrapreneurial activities influence, though do not fully define, an organization’s operations. To produce successful innovations, products, and services, an organization must have established structures in place so that it can act quickly and decisively when presented with opportunities to discover, create, build, test and launch new products and services.
Having established structures in place is a key determinant of entrepreneurial success, so most intrapreneurial-oriented organizations have well-developed process guidelines, meaningful metrics and responsibility/accountability frameworks imbedded in the operating culture. Like most innovation-practicing organizations, companies deploying intrapreneurial teams have structures and procedures in place to help their entrepreneurially minded employees achieve success.
Today, intrapreneurs perform successfully in organizations of all sizes. Their ranks continue to grow as organizations aggressively seek profitable, sustainable ways to compete both globally and locally — and intrapreneurs are well-suited to help their organizations succeed in today’s economy. So, if you are a problem-solving, expertly skilled and innovation-practicing employee, you most likely have already embraced intrapreneurship’s alluring appeal. But, if you are not yet operating as an intrapreneur, now is the time to propose that your organization embrace intrapreneurship.
David Whitney writes about innovation and entrepreneurship and consults with companies on all things related to innovation and entrepreneurship. David is an international speaker and has taught courses on innovation and entrepreneurship in both college classrooms and corporate boardrooms around the world. Whitney serves as Innovator- in-Residence at LeadingAgile Innovation Labs. In this role, David applies his operational experience and subject matter expertise to help LeadingAgile’s clients and strategic partners form and operate entrepreneurially minded teams. These teams are tasked with producing and launching problem- solving, commercially viable innovative products and services.