Intrapreneurs often don't have job descriptions- and if they do, most of their actual work is probably done outside what's written down on that piece of paper. It's the role of the intrapreneur to find new and disruptive ways of doing business, deliver innovative products and services to the market, and foster a culture of innovation to maintain market leadership.

Dave Blakely has worked with dozens of intrapreneurs and innovation teams. As a taster to Intrapreneurship Conference #8 Silicon Valley we asked him to share his four keys to successful intrapreneurship. But first: why does he like to work with intrapreneurs?

Global media focuses our attention on breathless stories from upstart “unicorns” like Uber, Tesla and Lending Club. I know this is a cliché example in business, but Uber sure got it right. They identified a significant pain-point and realized that there was a solution at the intersection of three emerging technologies: Mobility, cloud and data analytics. Then the founding team thought very hard about what the best revenue model for the pre-IPO growth phase of the company and executed deftly against that plan. 

Yet my decades in the innovation business demonstrate that global companies are able create disruptive new lines of business, and to foster new ways of doing business, just like startups. 

So while startup growth is incredible, we should also cheer when Kimberly-Clark invents an entirely new category with pull-ups, Bank of America revolutionizes their service portfolio with Keep the Change, and CEMEX reinvents cement distribution and leapfrogs its competitors.

While these stories are often less attractive to the business press, they are indicators of the extraordinary ability of large companies to move in breakthrough directions. And that excites me."

#1: Manage the Mothership Correctly

Are you leading a team of intrapreneurs on a disruptive challenge? If you are not ready to spend up to a third of your time managing your parent company, don’t bother showing up. You need to embrace mothership management and commit the time required. Don’t gripe about mothership management – it’s a fundamental part of intrapreneurship.

As an organization dedicated to helping intrapreneurs succeed, we know that whereas startup entrepreneurs have one major battlefront — customer acquisition — intrapreneurs have two battlefronts, customers and the mothership.

Effective “mothership management” is a big topic but three success factors emerge from my most successful experiences helping large organizations to innovate:

Active involvement: It’s awfully easy to schedule weekly or monthly meetings with your steering team. Your leadership will lean back and listen to the progress you’ve made, and in the long run….your initiative will go nowhere. Here’s why: Successful intrapreneurs identify strategies to make mothership leaders active participants in the intrapreneurship process. Boring briefings to your management, while more convenient to schedule, will not succeed. Great ideas will wither and die unless your executives go on the innovation journey with you.

Proper level of adjacency: The team's innovation challenge must be adjacent to — but not too distant from — the interests of leadership, and the strategic initiatives of the firm. If your challenge fits neatly within current business initiatives, it should be addressed by an existing business unit, not by intrapreneurs. At the other extreme, programs that are highly remote from the firm’s core business will quickly lose the attention of leadership. I’ve seen execs literally flinch away from ideas that are too far from their company’s core capabilities, because success is just too hard to visualize.

Commitment to disruption: Leaders in the mothership need to embrace creative disruption, including cannibalization of their existing product lines. If your leadership gets weak in the knees at the thought of disruptive their current lines of business, disruptive intrapreneurship will fail. Have this conversation early!

#2: The Right Approach

Any team of would-be innovators needs to understand that innovation is a discrete set of learnable skills, not an innate talent. Methods and tools of innovation, such as agile methods and design thinking, can find a home in any organization.

Successful intrapreneurs choose the right mix of tools from the “big four” perspectives on innovation: Lean and agile methods, design thinking, open innovation, and disruptive innovation. The winners in innovation develop a thoughtful, strategic mix of these methods and tools, based on the unique needs of their organizations.

Most large organizations are designed for efficiency around their most successful and entrenched business areas. We have all seen wasted talent and underused resources buried in the bureaucracy, NIH problems, territorialism, and silos that are typical of large organizations.

However, from 25 years of experience with both the large company and startup worlds, I can assure you that many startups are just as troubled as large organizations. Funding pressure on startups leads to dysfunctional behaviors, startup leadership is often misaligned, and communication is frequently poor.

Here’s the difference: Startups are lean and fast or they die in a hurry, and they have the flexibility to risk catastrophic failure in order to shoot for astronomical success. 

Why can’t big companies take the same Darwinian approach to commercialization?

Run a portfolio of early-stage experiments, kill off most of them, and push a few through the channel to commercialization.

#3: Right Space, Right Scope and Right Pacing

Your leadership needs to provide protection for your team, otherwise internal governance will drive you crazy. Organizations must find a way to lift existing governance to allow early-stage adventures to flourish. If internal startups need to spend hours discussing the implications of Sarbanes-Oxley, they will never get anywhere.

Moreover, organizations should not think too much about the overall timescale for development. Rather, they should break programs into as series of discrete chunks of 8-12 weeks apiece, and commit the minimum necessary resources to the biggest risk areas.

Throughout the early stages of development, a steering team should challenge the team about three issues:

  • Desirability: Do people actually need this product or service? (It’s incredible how many corporations ignore this question and get lost in spreadsheets.)
  • Tech Feasibility: Can we build this, what are the biggest risks, and who are our technical partners?
  • Business Viability: Can we make money? Exactly what problem does this product/service solve, what is the value proposition, and what’s the business model?

#4: The Right People

Le’s acknowledge that innovators don't last long in large corporations. We all know creative, driven individuals who have a hormonal need to switch jobs every 2 to 3 years.

The “innovator’s dilemma” shows us that good innovators create order from chaos, then move on when an organization is ready to operationalize the new line of business.

It’s incumbent on all large companies to provide a space and career path for innovators to maintain cycles of creative destruction. 

How can big companies pick winning teams? I think they should look to Silicon Valley startup teams as a model. Sift the the staff of any large company and you’ll find people with the same qualities as startup CEOs, CFOs, and COOs. And as you might expect, they’re probably frustrated and pissed off.

Give them the opportunity to step out of the mothership operation for a while and incubate something with enough breathing room. You’ll breath new life into your high-potential employees and you might get a disruptive new product out of them.

Dave BlakelyIn Dave's workshop "Best Practice Intrapreneurship: From Idea to Commercialization" during Intrapreneurship Conference #8 Silicon Valley, you will leverage mach49’s deep corporate venture incubation experience to brainstorm with your colleagues on topics critical to intrapreneurship, such as identifying winning ideas, structuring effective teams, incubating new lines of business, and aligning leadership behind your initiatives. You will finish the workshop with fresh ideas to add to your intrapreneurship toolkit.