Intrapreneurship is gradually being recognised as by far the most potent solution to the growing need for corporations to innovate more effectively. Indeed as M.I.T. say:
“Intrapreneurship is as necessary for your company’s future as swimming is for a shark — if you don’t do it, you’ll die” (2018)
Building on the core principle that behind great propositions are great people (often missed by many approaches to corporate innovation in my opinion), intrapreneurship also unlocks a whole array of talent and cultural and engagement benefits in the process. Resolving potential blockers to intrapreneurship is thus not only of paramount importance to innovation teams the world over but also to HR and beyond. These benefits can be further ‘doubled-down’ if the opportunity to develop new propositions and become an intrapreneur, is offered to the organisation at large allowing intrapreneurship to be a discretionary, side-of-desk activity. Progress to improve intrapreneurship activity can be measured by the I2L score I have written about previously.
Let’s start with some basics of intraprenology – the science of building intrapreneurship programmes – to give some context. This consists of 4 success factors:
- An enabling culture which gives intrapreneurs ‘permission to play’ and ‘permission to operate’. This is itself enabled by the embedding of core principles of entrepreneurial behaviour and mindset within an organisation. This is no mean feat and, historically, I always thought this was the hardest of the 4 success factors to put in place. It usually takes the most time but structurally it isn’t the core blocker as we’ll see…
- The availability of entrepreneurial skills within an organisation. This is enabled by targeted training and experience. Intrapreneurship is very much a set of skills and this can be trained effectively, however, most of the skills must be developed from real life ‘frontline’ scenarios rather than in a classroom setting alone. Any intrapreneurship training programme must take this into account. I usually use a 90:10 split. 90% of the time is ‘out in the field’ attempting to develop & deliver a proposition supporting by 10% classroom training on tools and techniques which can be applied out in the field.
- The availability of critical resources in a time pertinent manner. By resources I mean both financial and anthropogenic (i.e. expertise). Traditional approaches to resourcing are incompatible with intrapreneurship and here is where we find the resource allocation gap which is the key structural blocker to intrapreneurship – as I’ll explain later.
- All 3 of the above underpinned by a clear delivery pathway so intrapreneurs have some sense of the way forward. This shouldn’t be overly directive but should guide intrapreneurs through a series of milestones to successful delivery.
These success factors need to be offset against the three paradoxes of intrapreneurial delivery I highlighted in a recent paper (Heard, 2020):
- The balance between the intrapreneurial desire to be autonomous and the organisational desire to control. Specifically, the fact that the desire to be autonomous drives uptake of intrapreneurship but too much autonomy can be one of the key blockers to delivery.
- Intrapreneurship is as much about selling and storytelling as it is about product development. One can have the best product idea in the world but without the necessary social, and political, capital it will never have the organisational will behind it to deliver. This is an added layer of complexity vis-à-vis entrepreneurship. Emotional investment in a venture is important to sell it internally, however, research shows too much emotional investment can lead to poor mental health when momentum slows and can sometimes lead to close-down/exit of a venture. The desire for purpose is thus both a driver, and an inhibitor, of intrapreneurial delivery.
- Organisations are recognising the essential need for intrapreneurial innovation – and on one hand promote this. One the other hand, however, organisational processes designed to safeguard the organisation can inhibit intrapreneurial delivery. Thus – processes in place to protect organisations – the corporate immune system – can also inhibit intrapreneurial activities which will safeguard their future.
The Resource allocation gap
In contradiction to the literature, from my experiences it appears resource allocation, rather than cultural enablement, is actually the critical hurdle to overcome in order to enable effective intrapreneurial delivery.
The problem with resource allocation stems from the fact that intrapreneurs tend to occupy discretionary organisational space given their ventures are discretionary in the early and mid phases. The semi-governed nature of discretionary space comes with its own set of challenges for intrapreneurs, which I will explore in a future blog. Organisations tend to bring in human resources (i.e. headcount) on a non-discretionary basis. Headcount is brought in on a role profile, required basis rather than to support work which is ‘side of desk’. This makes it hard for intrapreneurs to formally bring in resources to support their ‘side of desk’ ventures as recruitment processes are not built to support this. This is not a critique of these processes, more a statement of fact – it would not make financial sense for organisations to formally recruit on a discretionary basis and it would be an inefficient use of capital.
Intrapreneurs also struggle to obtain the required expertise internally as human resources, by the very nature of how organisations manage them, are largely pre-allocated to work. The work requirements for intrapreneurial projects often appear outside of resource allocation cycles and cannot usually partake in formal resource allocation exercises. If intrapreneurs do manage to get their ventures factored into resource allocation processes, non-discretionary work, by its very nature, will take precedence and thus it is unlikely the intrapreneur will be successful.
A combination of this inability to bring in external resources, or source them internally, means that intrapreneurs, and their ventures, become ‘stuck’ whereby they cannot obtain the expertise required to develop their propositions further. This is because certain expertise is critical in product development: Market researchers, UX researchers, Developers etc. This leads to a fairly common scenario when, despite obtaining funding, intrapreneurs struggle to spend that funding on the resources necessary to develop their propositions. It is further exacerbated by a common mistake in the conceptualisation of intrapreneurship whereby investment is conflated with delivery and is seen as the end point of the intrapreneurial process.
In many ways it is the start.
This misalignment of the ‘end point’ leads to a false dawn scenario for many intrapreneurs which can ultimately result in a crisis of engagement rather than the benefits of employee engagement which intrapreneurship sells itself on.
Given it is a tangible gap rather than a cultural one, the good news here is that the resource allocation gap can be closed quite easily. Somewhat counter-intuitively, given the internal nature of intrapreneurship, you’ll need to outsource elements of your intrapreneurship programme to a third party with the ability to be more agile about resourcing. By this I mean the third party can assess the core needs of each intrapreneurial journey and bring in short term resources on a sub-contract basis, for very short engagements (i.e. days rather than weeks), and at very short notice. These resources can be plugged into the intrapreneurial team at a pertinent time allowing the intrapreneurs to act more entrepreneurial. What’s more, it is often cheaper to bring in resources in this manner than to hire directly.
The resource allocation gap is eminently solvable. Solving it unlocks intrapreneurship, and all the benefits it brings for your organisation. It is of course not the only blocker to intrapreneurship but once functional blockers are removed, there is more of a clear path to drive the cultural shifts needed to enable intrapreneurship as a business-as-usual activity. The next unicorns are already sitting inside employees’ heads. Let’s support them to become a reality.