Intrapreneurship: the beauty or the beast? While some organizations experience tangible benefits from their intrapreneurship efforts, others shut down their programs because results are lacking.

We’ve said it before – intrapreneurship is for sure not a silver bullet, and there is no single way for doing it right. It comes down very much to the culture of your organization, the goals for the program and the people you select to be part of it. You can increase the chances of success by getting off to a good start with these practical tips from Jan Kennedy, who has designed and delivered dozens of intrapreneurship programs within various companies, and Antoon van Olmen, who runs the Accenture Innovation Challenge.

You are establishing and running intrapreneurship programs for a number of organisations. What makes or breaks an intrapreneurial initiative?

Jan Kennedy
Jan Kennedy

Jan Kennedy: Various “Intrapreneurship” programs are offered using various formats. In many cases though, they are not much more than a “gung ho let’s rally the troops feel good” excercise to collect new ideas.

For me, fostering Intrapreneurship means to have a process that helps employees take an idea, test it and develop it by putting real potential customers at the centre and make many changes until a viable business model for commercialisation is derived at. This kind of process has been tweaked and polished in the start-up training world and it’s pretty difficult to enable a group of corporate employees to follow that kind of process.

Here’s my top 3 Intrapreneurship Program Design tips that must be implemented simultaneously:

Sponsorship of Time and Methodology: It surprises a lot of people when I don’t mention money. It actually costs very little to get underway with launching new ventures – having the time and the right methodologies are the bigger resources. There’s no point in having ideas if the path has not been cleared to be able to develop those ideas into commercialisable ventures or worthy implementations – leveraging design thinking and lean startup approaches.

Management need to rally behind the need to expose individuals to entrepreneurial practices and cut them slack from their normal responsibilities. We typically ask for 20% time and also raise the expectation that participants will have to be willing to invest extra hours, for example on evenings and weekends. Managers of intrapreneurs need to be sensitive to avoid adding extra responsibilities to participants during the program and indeed be able to free them up. If the participants role is of a nature where they can’t make the time commitment or be flexible enough with their working time, they will unlikely succeed in the program.  

It actually costs very little to get underway with launching new ventures – having the time and the right methodologies are the bigger resources.

People and Ideas: By now it is well known that entrepreneurship is not well suited to many. Most of us are in corporate jobs because we don’t like risk. On the flip side, successful entrepreneurs do share common personality traits such as having a high degree of fluid intelligence (not IQ), are very open, have a moderate level of agreeableness, don’t give up and above all, are extremely passionate about what they are trying to achieve i.e. the idea. The idea should be practically self-selected by the participant based on their level of interest and passion.

For Intrapreneurship programs to succeed, the ideas being pursued should be aligned with other corporate goals and the aspirations of management in order to avoid the ‘losing interest’ syndrome once things get tough. It’s best if people work in cross-functional teams that mirrors a start up team and can pull in additional expertise on an ad-hoc basic. 

Structured curriculum and mentoring: Just because someone may be entrepreneurial, have an idea and have room to develop the idea, doesn’t mean they know what to do and won’t waste lots of time and resources in the process. This is the Entrepreneur’s Dilema. Even the very best entrepreneurs seek constant guidance and peer review.

We are constantly developing leading Intrapreneurship Curriculum which helps teams to develop their ideas in a lean and accurate way whilst being mentored by subject matter experts who have ‘been there done that’. A pool of internal supporters and experts can also be important to help carry the idea forward and make it fit the internal business model that might be required to bring it to market - which again brings us back to sponsorship. 

How did you start planning for your program, and what has changed since then? 

Antoon van Olmen

Antoon van Olmen: We are now organizing our “Innovation Challenge” for the 5th consecutive year since its inception and over time some change have taken place. The original set-up was to have a competition to gather any innovative idea for the entire BeLux and to do so several phases were defined, with a clear deliverable at the end of each phase, followed by the selection of a subset of ideas that could progress to the next phase.

The very first version of the Challenge was just that, a platform to submit, approve and develop your own idea, without much input from other people outside of your own team. Based on our own findings and feedback that was gathered from the participants some important changes were made over time:

  • The teams have access to coaching and mentoring from industry, domain and technology experts as well as innovation tools.
  • Clients have been involved from the start to have a direct and objective sounding board,  ensure market relevance and help them tackle their challenges and become more performant
  • Inspiration sessions have been organized to give all participants, irrelevant of their background, an introduction into current hot topics
  • Additional focus was put on prototyping to enable rapid feedback gathering

Are you happy with the results you’re getting?

In terms of results we must say we were very pleasantly surprised as of the first edition. Having a total employee base of around 1.300 we see, on average, 150 ideas being submitted to the first round, with multiple people backing up each idea. Seeing the quality of these ideas and their evolution throughout the different phases and the feedback we get from external people this program is definitely considered a success within Accenture.

For example, one of our winning teams from last year has now started their own start-up called “Flavr”, which has already won several other innovation prizes and will soon go live with their uber-for-home-cooked-meals platform. So even if there is no fit with what we do at Accenture we still support them in terms of advice and allowing them to stay on our payroll for their first quarter. After all, any disruption to the, mainly mature, Belgian market can trigger an increased demand for our services.

So even if there is no fit with what we do at Accenture we still support them in terms of advice and allowing them to stay on our payroll for their first quarter.

Some companies are shutting down their internal labs, incubators or accelerators (whatever name they use). Why is that? What are the lessons learned for other companies?

Jan Kennedy: I think the short answer is, because they simply didn’t work. They didn’t produce results or meet the expectations that were placed on them. I can’t comment on what expectations were made, if it was a 2X, 10X or 100X return within XYZ time frame, but when you look at ‘startup accelerators’ at a global scale, of which their are thousands, not many can claim to be successfull and we expect a huge consolidation to take place.

I think you have to be super involved to fully understand the real workings of these types of programs. You have to have worked super closely with many startup teams, many different types of ideas, many different curriculums, many types of mentors and seen a few iterations of each in order to be good at designing and managing such a program that will create valuable new ventures.

If whoever is running the program is not at that calibre and they don’t seek that kind of support, the odds are heavily stacked against them. Even if they do have what it takes and they do a good job in implementing the 3 points from above, they are still unlikely to succeed first time. This is because we see that every program must be adapted to the organisation (due to it’s structure and culture and aspirations).

You can take core elements but other parts need to be learned and built-in specifically for that organisation to make the program viable over the long term. The corporate must have the mindset to keep ‘learning from failure’ until they can adapt the program to make it their own – something that works for them.

An entrepreneur only ever truly fails because of one reason – because they give up.

An entrepreneur only ever truly fails because of one reason – because they give up. The idea may change, the people may change, how you implement may change but the entrepreur who never gives up, will succeed in his venture. Unfortunately many programs are a) poorly implemented and b) not allowed to go the distance to gather the learnings that will help them adapt to fit the organization better.

What is your best piece of advice for those at the start of their intrapreneurship programs?

Antoon: If I would have to pick just one piece of advice it would have to be to keep it simple. There’s no use in putting in place a megalithic process, nor is there a need to force your intrapreneurs into a specific domain with their ideas. We have experienced over time that stimulating intrapreneurship is more a question of enabling, rather than imposing.

There are obviously multiple possibilities in terms of types of programs you can put in place. However, what is key is that you are clear upfront about what is required at what point in time and what will be offered to the participants as well. Every participant will have a different way of working and with that comes a different need for support. You can offer some predefined/formal guidance, ideally focussed towards explaining the program (requirements) and not the ideas themselves, but what is crucial is to have various types of support available. So make sure it is clear what is available, how they’d go about “using” it and that the people offering the support, whatever the type, are also aware of what is expected from them. 

We have experienced over time that stimulating intrapreneurship is more a question of enabling, rather than imposing.

Related to the second aspect of keeping it simple I would refrain from imposing certain topics/domains on your participants. Instead of doing so - and depending on the goal of your program and, for example, current or expected market trends - you can, however, inform them upfront about the possibilities or the potential value of a certain topic. This could help steer them towards these topics, whilst still keeping the program open to any other ideas.

Limiting your potential idea landscape would only create a risk of missing out on valuable ideas and demotivating your participants. Additionally, those ideas that might seem “irrelevant” at first might be the ones that end up providing valuable new insights or possibilities for your organization.