Intrapreneurship in Action: BASF, Deutsche Bahn and BNP Paribas

In need of support, but keen on staying under the radar at the same time.

Nowadays, intrapreneurship is seen and recognized as a strategy for innovation, delivering better results faster- yet not immediately; it’s a continuous learning process for all parties involved.

Wherever you are on your intrapreneurial journey, it’s always helpful to understand how other companies are doing it and what results they’re getting.

Here’s a glimpse into intrapreneurship at BASF, Deutsche Bahn and BNP Paribas, shared on stage during #IntraCnf Stockholm last May by Christian Weil, Matthias Patz and Sabrina Murphy.

BASF: The Creator Space

In 2015, BASF celebrated its 150th anniversary by taking a long look at their existing innovation strategies and improving them for the future — innovating their innovation. They launched Creator Space, a co-creation program designed to bring together ideas and people from around the world to focus on innovative solutions for challenges in urban living, energy, and nutrition.

The Creator Space program has 3 phases: exploration, ideation and incubation. In their anniversary year, they focused on the first two phases; understanding how markets are emerging and evolving and how BASF fits in, and what partners and methods are best suited for ideating around specific challenges in these markets?

Try new things. For BASF, most of their 2015 activities and partnerships were things they had never tried before — and they worked.

In order to push their innovation efforts forward, BASF committed to trying methods they had never tried before: open challenges, a multi-country tour, and an internal crowdsourcing challenge.

Method #1: The Open Innovation Challenge

BASF set up a publicly available online open innovation challenge, inviting participants from around the world to submit proposals for low-cost grid-scale energy storage technologies that will provide reliable global energy reserves and create a strong economic framework for energy production and distribution. After reviewing over 100 proposals, BASF awarded 4 prizes of 100,000€ and is continuing to collaborate with one winner, helping them test the technology and feasibility of their proposal.

Ideating with your customers can not only result in ideas for the future, but immediate ideas for and additional sales with existing products.

Method #2: The Creator Space Tour

BASF took Creator Space on a six-city tour — Mumbai, Shanghai, New York, Sao Paulo, Barcelona and Ludwigshafen — to bring together experts, manufacturers, initiatives and products to uncover solutions together and explore the role of chemistry in addressing local challenges around the world.

Method #3: Employee Innovation Challenge

For the first time, BASF launched an internal crowdsourcing initiative. Using their internal social media platform, they issued three innovation challenges, focused on air, water and transportation. After the pre-engagement phase, participants submitted over 140 proposals online — with most of these coming in during the final two weeks of the submission phase — and employees voted for the best thirty. From there, a jury selected the top ten, and those selected were given mentorship and training before coming to company headquarters to pitch their ideas to top management. Two winners were selected to move through to the incubation stage.

Communication is Key

For their anniversary year, BASF devoted their entire advertising budget to the Creator Space program. They engaged Award-winning director Thomas Grube to create a feature-length documentary — as well as shorter clips and trailers along the way — to make the program tangible and connect emotionally to employees and to the general public. They also had live communication from all events, and encouraged their employees to share on social media — without requiring them to have their communications approved.

Communication is key. Use emotional storytelling to engage internal and external audiences, and to make your initiatives tangible.

BASF’s external advertising campaigns and presence on social media garnered them a lot of media attention, and writeups and case studies in the Harvard Business Review, European Business Review and IESE Business School.

The Outcomes (So Far)

Throughout the year, BASF saw 4.5 million online visitors, and 10,000 internal and external participants in Creator Space activities. 900 people joined for in-class trainings and webinars for eight co-creation and open innovation methods. From 50 exploration and ideation activities, they received over one thousand ideas and funneled them through to over 500 concepts, which resulted in over one hundred projects for short and mid-term direct implementation, 67 long term landmark proposals, and immediate additional sales with existing products.

Deutsche Bahn: Intrapreneurship Ecosystem

Matthias Patz had been working in DB’s innovation and IT department for seven years, using stage gate processes and open innovation challenges to foster innovation within the company. But as time went on, he realized this wasn’t enough — they weren’t getting the right kinds of ideas, and the good ideas they were getting weren’t implemented fast enough to make a real impact.

DB has between 400–600 subsidiary companies, each with their own processes, and that posed a challenge for innovation. He knew they had to build a new ecosystem for intrapreneurs in order to drive real change and growth.

Intrapreneurs are a company’s secret weapon — we need to make it easier for them to explore and experiment within a corporate structure.

Their Approach: Do It Like Entrepreneurs

Since Matthias ran a startup before transitioning to the corporate world, he looked to the outside to see what resources and processes entrepreneurs used. He saw business incubators where people could learn and connect with mentors to develop their ideas; coworking spaces filled with people with diverse backgrounds and skillsets; accelerators offering financial and other support; VC firms hearing pitches and granting funding for startups to scale. He decided that DB intrapreneurs needed these same resources and processes available to them.

Creating a Common Language

Since DB was so dispersed, Matthias knew they would need to establish a common language. His team ran methodology workshops and trainings, so that each division could talk to and understand one another. From there, they ran trainings on data, design thinking, lean startup, and other methods, and introduced tools such as the business model canvas. They got a 3D printer, and created spaces similar to LEGO Serious Play, where intrapreneurs could go from talking concepts to creating tangible examples. Internal communities quickly built up around these new methods.

Training is vital to ensure everyone is on the same page and speaking the same language — especially in a large, siloed organization.

Getting Them Outside

To help budding intrapreneurs develop a new mindset, Matthias sent them out to work at startups for one week to get hands-on experience in working differently. They also created physical innovation hubs and creative centres, like the Mindbox in Berlin, for employees to go and get inspiration and mentorship for their ideas. Each location focused on different areas — one might focus on customer experiences, while another looks mainly at different technologies.

Moving Them Along

The next step was to build an acceleration program, where intrapreneurs could take the next step and build an MVP. In DB’s case, it wasn’t feasible to totally remove people from their day-to-day work, so they created a three month program where intrapreneurs get one day each week dedicated to working on their idea. Once they pass the pitch phase, DB has the ability to either create a division for the product, or to spin it out as a new company.

Setting Goals

In each phase of the process, intrapreneurs are expected to achieve certain things — and the company is expected to deliver as well. In the incubation phase, the person or team with the idea is expected to remain in the driver’s seat and take ownership of their idea from start to finish. Previously, people who came up with an innovative idea would throw it over to the innovation department — Matthias realized that they needed to be given the opportunity and the resources, budget and support to develop the idea themselves.

If you want meaningful innovation to take place, you need to dedicate the time, space and resources to make it happen — including budget and training/mentorship

In the acceleration phase, teams are given a dedicated mentor and a budget of 20K for prototyping, and are expected to track metrics and remain open to pivoting if need be.

Fully Committing

Intrapreneurs who make it past the pitch phase are given internal development money, similar to venture capital, to fully build out a new division or company for their project. In return, they must quit their current position and commit to at least one year, full time, on the project, and need to report monthly. If the project doesn’t work, they must either re-apply for their former position, or apply to a new position in the company — so it’s all-in.

The Outcomes (So Far)

The implementation of these programs was a lengthy process, especially in a large, established corporation like DB. Concepts like agile, design thinking and rapid prototyping weren’t natural to the leadership at DB, but as results began coming in they got on board and began to understand how fostering and supporting intrapreneurship enabled them to stay ahead of disruption and find new growth areas.

Having proven processes and methodologies in place helps everyone know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how to get it done quickly and effectively.

In addition to empowering their own employees, DB also brings early stage tech startups into their programs, mainly through their DB Mindbox in Berlin, to help them develop prototypes for the mobility, logistics, and infrastructure sectors, and bring them to market.

BNP Paribas: The People’s LAB

The banking sector faces ongoing challenges and disruptions. In 2014, Sabrina Murphy launched the People’s LAB, an accelerator for intrapreneurs at BNP Paribas, to support employees who have an innovative idea and help them turn it into a concrete project within the BNP Paribas Group.

The People’s LAB is focused on collective mobilization; the participant’s entire team commits to their project and benefits from their learning: agile methods, start-up culture, and individual development. Whether for a new service, a new product or a new internal operating mode, People’s LAB helps intrapreneurs mobilize internal investors and obtain the budgets, cooperation and resources necessary for the concrete launch of their project.

Their Approach: Lean, Agile and Collaborative

Though participants learn what is quickly becoming traditional methods — lean, agile — the LAB is located at WAI (We Are Innovation) Paris, the business accelerator of BNP Paribas. At WAI, participants work alongside startups, mid-sized companies and large enterprise clients. The LAB strives to bring together three main functions: HR stakeholders, including training and talent management; innovation managers; and managers in charge of business and strategy. By linking these worlds together, the LAB legitimizes intrapreneurship as an asset to the company, and ensures the conditions for intrapreneurial success are favourable.

As Sabrina discovered, however, bridging the gap between the individual energy of intrapreneurs and the collective energy of the Group wasn’t easy. Here’s what made it work:

Start With Business, Not Culture.

Diving in and trying to change the culture of your organization is likely to be met with huge resistance — so don’t do it. Instead, start by finding out what the main business needs are — what challenges and emergencies your company is facing. Sabrina’s first move was to connect with the strategy people in various departments and units and ask them what they needed most. She then explained that she was starting a group dedicated to helping them move faster and deliver on projects they had tagged as a priority.

Position yourself and your initiative as a solution to business challenges — not a problem or a challenge in itself.

Results First, Communication Later

Though it was difficult, Sabrina kept her activities quiet while starting the LAB. Why? Because she sensed that in order to be recognized as a legitimate asset to the company, the LAB had to show results first. Knowing that the company ‘immune system’ might stop her, she kept things focused on one-to-one communications with influencers, positioning the LAB as a solution to business challenges and quietly working on delivering results that would speak for themselves.

Don’t try to change the culture of your organization — that will happen naturally after you get some tangible results.

Don’t Head To The Top

Rather than seeking support from top management, Sabrina sought allies in unusual places. One source of allies that surprised her? The corporate branding department. While she didn’t communicate about the LAB directly, the branding department did, sending out corporate Tweets and messages about what they were doing. This lent legitimacy to the LAB.

Look For Suzerains, Not Sponsors

Sabrina knew it would be easy to find sponsors — people who would help her because it would help them as well. But what she wanted were suzerains — people who would help her because they were not only in the right position to do so, but because they believed in what she was doing and why. Her first suzerain came from the Human Resources Group — the head of diversity and inclusion. This person believed in the LAB, but had no desire to be in the spotlight or take ownership; instead, she helped Sabrina connect with sponsors and supported her in meetings with executives.

Create Collective Moments

Sabrina found that in order to engage execs, she had to create collective moments — opportunities for people to participate in the LAB, even if just briefly. She spent a good deal of time knocking on doors to ask high-level people if they would be on the jury for the LAB, or be a source of feedback during coaching sessions, and managed to get BNP’s head economist to agree.

Involve managers — they are the ones who can ensure projects actually get implemented after the innovation program ends.

Again, this created legitimacy…but also support, as the people she asked felt like they were being approached as experts and were delighted to take part in something they found energizing and different from their ordinary activities.

Stay Connected

A big risk in running something like the People’s LAB is isolation — you’re running a project or program that is outside of the core business. To that end, Sabrina realized how vital it was to connect with other labs and programs inside the Group, and to reach out to external organizations as well. She offered help to other innovators in her company, and asked them to get involved in the LAB, as well as asking experts from other corporations to come in and speak to LAB participants or act as ‘feedbackers’. Keeping connections active helped the LAB stay on the radar at BNP, and helped her and her team ensure they were receiving ideas and feedback from diverse sources.

The Outcomes (So Far)

The first iteration of the LAB brought together 14 intrapreneurs who devoted one day a week for five months, working in pairs with their managers, group experts and innovation specialists. At the end, 11 projects were pitched to committee, and eight are currently in development in the Group. Since then, it has grown into open calls with more participants each year.

Especially at first, let other people communicate for you — engage and involve them as jurors and experts, and they will spread your message better than you can.

Want to hear how other companies are doing intrapreneurship?

Discuss what’s working and what’s not, with innovation leaders from brands like GE, RBC, CIBC, Nestlé, Telus, Pearson and Cisco on stage during #IntraCnf Toronto, 15–17 November 2017.

Click HERE for first glimpse of speakers and sessions

Originally published at on June 27, 2017.

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