How companies can identify, support, and harness the potential of intrapreneurs

With the 2013 launch of the Ashoka “League of Intrapreneurs,” the idea of “intrapreneurship” has been getting a lot of press in the last few years. If your firm wants to capitalize on the full potential of its people, you should consider the following ways that companies can support intrapreneurs.

Intrapreneurship is not a new idea — it’s just a new word to describe people who innovate within a larger company (as opposed to within startups — which are generally expected to be more innovative). Social intrapreneurship is internal corporate innovation with a focus on creating cross-functional or cross-sector results for base-of-the-pyramid (BoP) markets, creating social or environmental value with an innovation, or otherwise expanding innovation to “beyond the bottom line” towards the double or triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

In general, social entrepreneurs who start their own companies have more control — but less funding. Conversely, social intrapreneurs can draw on the resources of more established, larger, and well-resourced companies, but may lack control over how to implement innovations — and need to be inspirational influencers of their colleagues and senior executives.

Some suggestions on how upper management can empower social intrapreneurs are as follows:

Upper management needs to set an empowering tone. If people are hired into a “collaborative” environment but only 3 people in the firm make all the decisions, that kills innovation since those 3 people are likely to be overwhelmed with requests. Clarity about how decisions are actually made is important for intrapreneurs. Like anyone else with a formal corporate project, intrapreneurs need to know who has power over budgets, staffing, and/or decisions in order to pilot or implement a triple-bottom-line innovation.

Hard-to-reach people like managers and executives need to set aside time for face time with people they might want to sponsor or otherwise support. If an executive is in a position to move something forward but they’re hard to reach because they’re in nonstop meetings, that’s hard.

There needs to be a mechanism for implementing ideas. If some executive says “OK, go,” where does the budget come from? Can an employee devote work hours vs. nights/weekends to implementing the idea? If it’s always nights/weekends and never during work hours, or if there is never an opportunity to make it part of the company’s way of doing business, it won’t work out.

Internal knowledge sharing is necessary but not sufficient. Without informal conversations on an internal wiki, instant messaging system, or corporate intranet, intrapreneurship can be hard to scale.

While the corporate setting can make a big difference in supporting intrapreneurs, intrapreneurs themselves also need to be persistent but patient. It can take time for ideas — even brilliant ones — to percolate through a corporate hierarchy. This is because of what I call the “theory of relativity of meeting times.” For executives who have nonstop meetings all day, every week, time seems to move very quickly because executives are rushing from one decision point to the next and only get to catch up on email at 5 pm or while running to the next meeting. But for lower level employees waiting for responses from management, time often appears to run slowly. Accordingly, if you’re a lower level employee with an intrapreneurial idea, you have to be persistent enough to follow up when an email you sent is pushed to the bottom of an executive’s inbox…but patient enough not to overload the key decision makers with requests for information or decision updates.

Need a one page checklist?

Consider the following:

  1. Read Change Your Company from the Inside Out (about CSR/Intrapreneurship-how-to) (full disclosure: I’m quoted in this book)

2. Read the Cubicle Warriors toolkit from the League of Intrapreneurs:

3. Apply to the StartingBloc Institute for Social Innovation — meet other innovators in companies, startups, government, nonprofits & more in a transformative 5 day program.

4. Read The Sustainability Champion’s Guidebook: How to Transform Your Company (Even if You’re Not the CEO) by Bob Willard

5. Read Social Innovation, Inc.: 5 Strategies for Driving Business Growth Through Social Change by Jason Saul

6. Read Net Impact’s “Impact at Work” resources

7. Check out the Ashoka & TechChange intrapreneurship course

8. Take this intrapreneurship course (based in Europe) — a 100 day challenge

9. Join the ~4000 member SFTech4Good Meetup in San Francisco

10. Share what you’re working on with OneCity (via sfciti) — in San Francisc

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