For many years I have worked as an Intrapreneur. I advised startups, built intrapreneurial eco-systems across global organizations, and mentored corporate teams applying Lean Startup and other entrepreneurial methodologies in Corporate Entrepreneurship programs.
The question that came up frequently was about the difference between intrapreneuring and corporate entrepreneuring: Are they the same?
The quick answer is ‘No’ as there are significant differences on many levels that directly affect the business outcomes. Both approaches come with distinct opportunities and challenges (see also the comparison table below):
- The Intrapreneur finds a bold idea that can have the potential to transform or even save the business but may not align with the business plans and priorities of the company – more likely, the idea is not anywhere on the management’s radar.
- The Corporate Entrepreneur receives the objective together with a project handed down by management. The idea (project scope) is a business goal of sorts that the Corporate Entrepreneur should address.
In a large company, jobs are small. The increasing complexity and high specialization of work in a large organization narrow the responsibility and job descriptions for the individual employee. In a small company, in contrast, jobs are big since there are only a few people who need to step up and cover all aspects of the business – the individuals ‘own’ and contribute to the success of the business directly and to large degrees.
- In this context, Intrapreneurs make an idea their own which determines the mission and scope of the intrapreneurial quest, the ‘intraprise’. The Intrapreneur assumes ownership and full responsibility for the idea and brings it to life – even against the resistance of the organization. Thus, the Intrapreneur runs his or her own, small ‘intraprise’ with full responsibility, freedom to operate and navigate in any way and direction imaginable, and -therefore- has a big job (just like an entrepreneur).
- The Corporate Entrepreneur receives the project objectives handed down by management and is held responsible for delivering on project results as scoped. The idea directly translates down from a business goal of sorts. The Corporate Entrepreneur usually runs or contributes to a ‘small job’ project that is temporary. This project scope and small job perspective together with the time limit can also affect process and outcomes as it can easily narrow the solution space, or adjusting and ‘pivoting’ by re-aiming, for example, at opportunities beyond the original or change the scope of the idea altogether.
The Idea Origin and Ownership are key to the single most important driving force for an Intrapreneur: Passion.
The importance of being passionate about the idea is essential because passion is needed to persist and to bring about change against the resistance many obstacles an Intrapreneur runs into. The resistance of the organization is a sign of meaningful change entailing the intrapreneurial idea; therefore, facing resistance can be a positive sign.
- An Intrapreneur committed and passionate about the idea will try everything and get very creative in bringing the idea to life.
- The Corporate Entrepreneur usually is not truly passionate about a project handed down by management and being held responsible for delivering on the project as scoped.
‘Intrapreneur’ is a self-assumed role in the organization and, therefore, operates without a formal mandate, organizational support or assigned resources. On the upside, the Intrapreneur does not have an answer to a superior. The challenge is, however, to get creative to find allies and resources in an organization unprepared to formally support the Intrapreneur. This lack of formal authority and institutional support by management also comes with considerable risk for the Intrapreneur and the idea.
The Corporate Entrepreneur has a clear mandate and already receives support from management usually within the given operational framework of the approved project. The project scope is narrow which translates into limited resources and restricted freedom to navigate. Furthermore, the project comes with timelines and expectations by sponsors whose patience can run out fast when the team misses milestones or falls short on expectations. Thus, Corporate Entrepreneuring, more often than not, is a glorified term for ‑usually‑ quite ordinary projects of incremental nature along established processes.
Mindset and Results
The limited scope, resources, and overall operational framework define a ‘box’ for the Corporate Entrepreneurs to operate in within the larger organization and the path on how to get there. Often enough these limits extend also into the mindset and open-mindedness of the team and their approaches. Real or perceived restrictions can originate from various factors present in the established organization such as formal process and procedures, authority and hierarchy, values and norms, group-think and taboos, etc.
Corporate Entrepreneurs operate openly and under the constant scrutiny of the larger organization. The latter can take uninvited influence on the project scope, progress, process, resources, results, and success as well as on the project team itself. Being able to leverage the resources of the larger organization can be very helpful when it comes to implementation and scaling (if it ever comes to his point) but operating in the limelight is not always helpful and may easily lead to compromises, trade-offs, and scope-creep induced by powerful stakeholder.
The Intrapreneur is not as limited by the formal boundaries, practices, and culture of the organization. Being able to operate outside the box lends itself to pursuing a bold and disruptive idea, taking unconventional and stealthy approaches and pathways that help to move the idea forward ‑ the sky is the limit. Operating in the shadows initially avoids drawing broader attention to the idea. Preventing premature exposure to the ‘organizational immune-system.’ Once triggered, it tends to quickly put an end to the unconventional idea and their champion. A stealthy Intrapreneur can more cautiously test the waters, find experts and executive supporters also outside the own business unit, and allow the idea to take shape, evolve, and mature before taking the risk of exposure.
Exposure comes with a range of possible outcomes where the idea can then can slip beyond the control of the Intrapreneur including:
- Shutting down the idea and implementation altogether or watering it down by absorbing it into the regular structures and processes of the organization
- Bringing the idea to life by creating a new company structure and business altogether
- The Intrapreneur leaving the organization to pursue the idea elsewhere
I have seen all of these outcomes many times throughout my career as an Intrapreneur and executive consultant.
What are rewards can look very different for Intrapreneurs and Corporate Entrepreneurs. The latter delivers a project and may get recognition for it, a bonus or promotion even, before moving on to the next assignment.
The Intrapreneur, however, has a much greater sense of accomplishment and fulfillment for the passionate Intrapreneur having brought a great idea to life against all obstacles and resistance of the organization.
Comparison in Summary
From my perspective, the main difference is that an intrapreneur has a calling, a vision, that he or she wants to bring to life for the better of the organization even against the resistance of an organization. Intrapreneuring is an active expression of organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB), i.e. ‘helping behaviors’, with going beyond the call of an employee’s duty. It requires intrapreneurial spirit with passion and guts to pursue challenges and to overcome obstacles day after day which includes taking risks including to stand all alone against the organization at times. This can make some Intrapreneurs even leave their organization to make their dream come true elsewhere or on their own.
While Corporate Entrepreneuring propagates introducing entrepreneurial methods within an established organization, if you look beyond its fancy label and a vendor’s prospectus, the approach ‑most often in my experience‑ remains shackled by numerous institutional constraints. Therefore, these program falls short to deliver the true potential of entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship. Instead, the solutions tend to remain in the more predictable space of incremental improvement that large organizations are more accustomed to and feel comfortable to operate in.
Thus, the average Corporate Entrepreneur is not an Intrapreneur by any means and not an entrepreneur either. Corporate Entrepreneurship then resembles a non-controversial, risk-free, and feel-good version of the intrapreneurial experience out of the safe position as an appointed corporate cogwheel in a glorified project with a marketing blast and a defined career path waiting at the end of the project.
The Golden Opportunity
Now having said all this, there is no reason why true Intrapreneurs and Corporate Entrepreneurship programs should not be compatible in ways where they can benefit from each other mutually.
A savvy Intrapreneur could use company’s Corporate Entrepreneurship program as a vehicle to forward the Intrapreneur’s agenda somewhat in alignment with company goals and avoiding a frontal collision with the organizational immune system. In return, the company benefits from a driven Intrapreneur in the driver seat who can bring intrapreneurial passion to the project – with a lot of ‘If’:
- If they are willing to embrace the disruptive challenge of bringing about meaningful change,
- If they are able to identify true Intrapreneurs in their organization and
- If they are bold enough to take a chance on Intrapreneurs by allowing them into the program in the first place. Remember, Intrapreneurs tend to be disagreeable among other ‘features’ that, often enough, not win them an invitation by management to join their fancy Corporate Entrepreneurship program.
All these ‘If’ remain the biggest obstacles across corporations to embrace Intrapreneurs. More recently, the phrase “culture fit” tends to disqualify Intrapreneurs and their passion ‑or‑ as the Contently founder Shane Snow puts it: “When an organization has an ethos rooted in ‘culture fit,’ a nasty hidden habit develops. Whenever someone has an idea that doesn’t ‘fit’ the established way of thinking or of doing things, they’ll either shut up or they’ll get shut down.”
There is something about the passionate individual and somewhat renegade employee with a vision and a transformative idea that challenges the status quo, group-think, or widely accepted goals in
an organization who may just need that disruptive or transformational idea to grow, outrun their competition, or even survive while rejecting the change initially. In the end, it comes down to the power of one individual that envisions greatness and brings it to life against all obstacles.