Diana Rhoten
Diana Rhoten

Whether designing offerings or re-designing organizations, IDEO always applies a human-centered approach to innovation. This approach, known as Design Thinking, is best understood as a non-linear process that moves back and forth between Inspiration, Ideation, and Implementation. Inspiration is what motivates the search for new ideas. Ideation is about developing and testing potential ideas. And Implementation is the path from idea to tangible innovation.

You don’t have to be “creative” to practice Design Thinking, but you do have to have the confidence to use the designer’s toolkit. In this post, we’ll talk about a model of continuous innovation that focuses on developing the competencies and conditions whereby all employees have the intrapreneurial potential to innovate.


One way to spur more innovation is to nurture the innovators” (David Kelley)


In today’s world of Uber and Twitter, it’s so easy to think of innovation as the terrain of charismatic entrepreneurs pioneering for change outside of traditional organizations. But after 25 years of working with long-standing brands, IDEO knows that many of the most celebrated innovations—3M Post-It notes, The Sony PlayStation, Gmail—have come from intrapreneurs pickaxing for change from inside existing corporations, governments, foundations and non-profits.

Unlike entrepreneurs who face the challenge of building a new organizational culture and structure from the bottom-up, intrapreneurs have the often harder challenge of fighting against deeply held and widely shared beliefs, assumptions, and practices from the inside-out.


Identifying the challenges faced by these internal change agents and finding ways to support, accelerate, and scale the work of intrapreneurs is a priority for us at IDEO. We believe that for intrapreneurs to succeed, their ideas to emerge, and their innovations to survive, there need be several competencies and conditions in place. At a high-level, these include:

  • A shared sense of purpose that inspires action across employees
  • A culture of curiosity that encourages exploration and learning
  • An explicit permission to experiment with new ideas
  • An organizational structure that fosters collaboration
  • An incentive system that empowers individuals to create change
  • An operational process for executing ideas as tangible innovations


From the entrepreneurial class to the intrapreneurial network

As more organizations anticipate the Uberization of their industry or experience the fluctuation of the economy, the smart ones will develop these conditions and competencies in order to support, connect, and reward intrapreneurs who can design new product solutions, revenue streams, customer experiences, and operational improvements.

In these organizations, innovation will no longer be reserved just for those sequestered to special projects in the incubator or the lab. Instead, intrapreneurship will be reclassified—from something practiced only by specialized teams on the edges and at the interstices of organizations, to something that unfolds via diversified networks across the core but also the boundaries of these organizations.

To be effective, these intrapreneurial networks will not be steady state. They’ll shapeshift, depending on where the organization is in the Design Thinking process. For example, during Inspiration, the network might center on the more external-facing employees (e.g., sales representatives) who have a close-up view of how industry trends are affecting competitors and customers, and who can bring such “ethnographic” insights back to the organization to inform potential new product directions.

By contrast, during Ideation, the network might re-organize around in-house employees (e.g., product teams) who have responsibility for the product under exploration, and who can “rapidly prototype” and “user test” new concepts in the market. Finally, during Implementation, the network might completely re-structure around a multi-functional team (e.g., sales, product, operations, strategy, marketing) that mirrors the larger organization, and that can execute on the development and delivery of the product to market by refining the “product roadmap” and “business model.”


The Art + Science of Innovation

The Lean Enterprise model argues that intrapreneurial innovation is best achieved through a more optimal allocation of resources across select teams of entrepreneurs who can create maximal value for customers. The Ambidextrous Organization believes a structural or contextual solution must separate intrapreneurs from the core operations, allowing innovation to run in parallel to execution.

The Creative Confidence model emphasizes (not surprisingly) the essential human-centeredness of innovation—and not just pockets of talent but whole networks of talent who can operate and innovate in tandem. It is about activating the potential for ambidexterity in all employees and then enabling and incentivizing them to work creatively and collaboratively with the right resources at different moments in the Design Thinking process. This approach to intrapreneurial innovation can be hugely disruptive to an organization’s norms and processes, as many aspects of the organization have to be reconsidered. But, it can also be wildly beneficial to its health (talent satisfaction and retention) and wealth (revenue and profit).

In an era of increasing competition, the power to ‘make markets’ lies not in an organization’s ability to design a single breakthrough offer but in its ability to design organizations that can uncover new ideas and unlock new innovations on a continuous basis. And, in an era of accelerating complexity, the power to then 'move markets' rests not only in the ability of intrapreneurs to create and collaborate inside their organization but also in their capacity to form partnerships with external customers, suppliers, regulators who can co-design radical system-wide innovations that create broad value for the economy and society.

In the end, this is the art + science of innovation.



This is a guest post by Diana Rhoten, IDEO. Diana works with organizations to reimagine who they are, what they do, and how they do it. Drawn to big challenges, she actively helps IDEO and its clients effect change at scale through the design of new offerings, ventures, and partnerships.