The Rise of the Intrapreneur

Posted on March 27, 2012

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The Rise of the Intrapreneur
How to become an ‘Intrapreneur’?  Why are Intrapreneurs needed?  What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?  – The future of innovation within large organizations lies within, if you know how to tap into it with intrapreneurship!

What is Intrapreneurship?

Did you know that ‘Intrapreneur’ and ‘Intrapreneurship’ are not new terms but were coined nearly 35 years ago by Elizabeth and Gifford Pinchot in 1978?

As a definition for our purposes, an intrapreneur takes responsibility in large organizations for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation.  In contrast to an entrepreneur, the Intrapreneur operates within an existing organization with an internal focus.  Intrapreneurship requires an organization of considerable size for an intrapreneurial role to become applicable in the first place.

What is the difference to Entrepreneurship?

‘Intrapreneur’ is not as well known as the more established term ‘Entrepreneur’ which it derives from.  It even takes a deliberate effort to pronounce the word Intrapreneur so doesn’t sound like and get confused with Entrepreneur.

The word ‘Entrepreneur’ has been around since the 19th century with its functional roots reaching even farther back into the 16th century.  According to the original definition, an Entrepreneur is “one who undertakes an enterprise […] acting as intermediatory between capital and labour” or in other words, to “shift economic resources out of lower and into higher productivity and greater yield.”  (source: Wikipedia)

The role of an Entrepreneur is not so different from the Intrapreneur but many differences exist relating to the environment they operate in and the approach they take.  An Entrepreneur founds a new venture, a business, or company, as an independent economic entity.  This new entity then typically competes for profit in a market with other companies.  Today, Entrepreneurship has fanned out to include specializations such as lifestyle, serial, or social Entrepreneurship that also expanded in markets (in lieu of a better word) previously dominated by non-for-profit, clerical or government institutions.

As a bottom-line, Entrepreneurship roots in competition between companies or organizations by introducing and building a new entity that grows as a company to stand alone in an economic marketplace – while the Intrapreneur connects “capital and labour” using somewhat entrepreneurial methods within an existing organization.  You can even see Intrapreneurship as a downstream evolution for a successful and matured entrepreneurial venture.

Why do we need Intrapreneurs?

With increasing size, an organization slows.  Inertia and paralysis set in to replace agility and effectiveness.  This is often caused by the organization’s own success: The focus shifts towards delivering with increasing efficiency (cost, time) and consistency (quality).  You can easily observe the results in many organizations – it looks somewhat like this:

  • Business functions specialize and sub-optimization to become more efficient and productive; they thereby form ‘silos’ with communication and interactions thinning between them to the detriment of the organization as a whole.
  • Hierarchical structures become steeper to manage more employees; they effectively disconnect the executives on the top from the workers at the bottom of the hierarchy.
  • Promising innovation ideas from the grassroots don’t get through to the executive level for backing or funding to be developed and implemented; the ideas starve and innovation suffers overall.
  • More rules and procedures regulate the growing workforce and detailed aspects of work processes; governance, red tape, and bureaucracy pour over the organization like concrete and become obstacles to change.
  • Career paths become linear, job profiles and responsibilities narrow, entailing an equally narrow view and mindset of the staff that eats away motivation and creativity over time.
  • Talented and creative employees are the first to leave or become hard to retain, as they are always in demand and easily find interesting work elsewhere.
  • Innovation suffers while competitive pressure increases when nimble competitors and start-ups outpace the organization.
  • Management used to command-and-control eagerly seeks fresh talent and ideas externally, i.e. ‘hiring the best and brightest’, to reanimate the organization – yet the leaky pipeline continues bleeding talent, as also the new ‘super stars’ find themselves trapped and escape to new adventures elsewhere.

It takes a jolt to overcome this inertia, revive it, and get an organization moving nimble again ‑ this is the hour of the Intrapreneur!

Time for Action - Clock

Time for Action – Clock

How to become an Intrapreneur?

It takes a new role in the organization to jump-start it, so we “Innovate to Implement“.  Sometimes, a new CEO is hired to turn the corporate ship around from the top; sometimes it works.  The Intrapreneur, however, also considers working bottom-up by pulling the loose ends together and connecting people again across all functions and levels of hierarchy.  The Intrapreneur bridges the various gaps within the organization vertically and horizontally.

It takes a different approach to include, and engage all employees in ways outside their immediate job description that makes best use of all dimensions each individual brings to the (work) table.  The Intrapreneur inspires and spreads a new sense of enablement throughout the workforce.

The Intrapreneur looks differently at how we conduct our business and unlocks innovative value chains, new business models, or propositions.  It takes a strategic lead to become a facilitator for the organization, to adapt continuously and make best use of the changing environment.  The Intrapreneur builds networks and alliances to help actively moving the organization towards its business goals.

The Intrapreneur is a much-in-need and critical role within the matured organization.  It can come in different flavors too!  Being the ‘Executive Champion’, for example, is an intrapreneurial role (see “How to become the strategic innovation leader? (part 2 of 3).”

As an Intrapreneur it is important to be aware what hat to wear and when.  Sometimes an ‘architect’ is needed and an ‘orchestrator’ at other times, for example.  ‑ For more details see: “Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?

Risks becoming an Intrapreneur

Now, as a word of warning, being an Intrapreneur is not always easy:  You tent to step on many people’s toes if you want to make a difference.  It can be so risky, that Gifford Pinchot even formulated The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments starting with: “Come to work each day willing to be fired.”

So brace yourself because there are many obstacles to innovation and change out there that the Intrapreneur will face.  Intrapreneurship is most and foremost a leadership role, which has a natural tendency to conflict with managers (see “Leadership vs Management?  What is wrong with middle management?”).

Prepare to hit the obstacles to an innovation environment that Irving Wladawsky-Berger in Business Week calls “indifference, hostility, and isolation” – I couldn’t agree more!

The bottom-line

It is not always easy to become an Intrapreneur.  It takes skill and persistence as well as courageous leadership and risk taking.  Truly making a difference and reviving an organization though is rewarding in itself – at least you will learn a lot and make new friends.  ‑ Most of all make sure you have fun!