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Eight ways to turn your team into intrapreneurs

What defines an entrepreneur? The typical picture is of a go-it-alone leader, using inspiration, creativity and innovation to forge new paths. But what if we’re missing a trick? What if some of the best ideas could be found within a business, rather than at the head of a new one?

How to turn your organisation into an ideas factory

Dr Chris Coleridge

Dr Chris Coleridge

“Many people define entrepreneurship as building your own business,” says Dr Chris Coleridge, Senior Faculty in Management Practice at Cambridge Judge Business School’s Entrepreneurship Centre. “But not every creative thinker wants to do that – you can be a successful entrepreneur within the heart of an organisation.”

In fact, rather than being afraid of new thinking, Dr Coleridge says businesses should embrace internal entrepreneurs – intrapreneurs – before they leave and take their great ideas elsewhere. “Seeing an opportunity, evaluating how viable it is, persuading others to buy in to it, the skills to take innovation forward, encouraging people to go with that creative mindset – every organisation needs someone with those tools.”

Many of the principles of entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship are exactly the same, so what can businesses do to develop natural intrapreneurs – and turn the rest of the team into ideas people? Here is our list of eight actions.

1. Have a clear vision

Professor Stylianos Kavadias

Professor Stelios Kavadias

“It’s the holy grail,” says Professor Stelios Kavadias, Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School. “An organisation striving to deliver as efficiently as possible while having the space to facilitate innovation. Some business leaders take no risks, others think innovation is about people going wild, doing whatever they want. It isn’t. The best way is in the middle – first you need a clear sense of direction. Then as long as you don’t deviate from that overall vision, you can be as innovative as you like.”

2. Say no to culture of fear

Oscar Wilde famously said: “An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all”. Of course, innovation carries risk – but the successful intrapreneur is not afraid of failing. “That means creating a culture where ideas are welcomed,” says Kavadias. “No-one should be afraid to suggest improvements or alternatives – and keep making suggestions.”

3. Come together

Frank Roche

Frank Roche

“For innovation to work you need to put people with different strengths together,” says Frank Roche, Senior Director and Innovation Project Lead at GlaxoSmithKline and alumnus of the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship. “If you’re on the technical side and you have an idea about, say, a product, you need the input of a marketing person to help see if it’s viable, and vice versa. But if you don’t have that dialogue early on, the idea goes no further. So build professional and personal relationships with other departments – it’s always easier to pitch an idea to colleagues you already know, rather than a team you never speak to.”

4. Get busy on the boundaries

“Innovation comes from going outside your comfort zone – and your department’s comfort zone,” says Hanadi Jabado, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre. “Where specialists are all working together, there’s inevitably a culture of insulation with a set of boundaries. Stay within that structure but go to the edge of the boundaries to enable you to integrate ideas and practices that didn’t happen before. And as a leader that means introducing mechanisms enabling that to happen. Create forums that bring engineering and marketing people together. Rotate staff to spend time in other departments. Bring people together. After all, they are working towards that one clear vision.”

5. Support big thinking across the business

“You need a clear signal from the top that a good idea can come from anywhere,” says Roche. “The KitKat Chunky chocolate bar was famously dreamed up by a worker on the production line. It’s that culture of crossover activity that enables such things to happen.” And, adds Kavadias, make sure middle management is not killing all the stories, by integrating horizontally. “The function of leaders is to help their team members succeed,” says Roche. “Not the other way round.”

Hanadi Jabado

Hanadi Jabado

6. Take a lean approach

You don’t have to gamble everything on innovation, says Jabado. “Ideas need seed money and the space to grow and be tested gradually. You sometimes hear senior managers talking about grand, bold ideas that cost millions, without understanding they don’t have to spend big to be experimental. It’s about getting an idea, and a little money to test, and with that success you can get a little more investment and test a little bigger and gradually increase the scale. That way any setbacks are on a small scale while you get it right.”

7. Treat your stakeholders like customers

“One of the key aspects the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship teaches is how to work with stakeholders,” says Coleridge. “Internal and external colleagues, suppliers, funders – you have to navigate through all those people and work out where influences can be made. It’s a particularly vital entrepreneurial skill to develop as an employee.” One of GSK’s most significant innovations in recent years was a collaborative project with three universities and three leading engineering and technology firms which revolutionised how pharmaceuticals are made. The GSK-led, award-winning £10m facility for continuous manufacture of tablets reduced the product cost by 20 per cent and the capital cost by a factor of three while ensuring a consistent level of quality. Says Roche: “This was an example of the power of an organisational culture that encourages reaching out to form partnerships inside and outside the company. Overlapping stakeholders can help an intrapreneur to spot an opportunity.”

8. Keep on moving

A truly intrapreneurial organisation is always looking for ideas on how to improve. “It’s not just about bringing in new ideas, or asking people for their contributions,” says Kavadias, “it’s about embedding this logic of constantly moving forward and enabling mechanisms so people are always naturally thinking innovatively. 3M is a fantastic example of this – it launched over a century ago but has kept its innovative culture in its DNA all the way through. Some leaders miss that continuity aspect. One major US-based appliance manufacturer brought in all the right people but then left them to stagnate and the company stalled. But another CEO embedded intrapreneurship so successfully in the organisation that when he stopped being innovative, his staff pushed him out!”