If business success depends on happy customers, happy customers come from energized, engaged employees – and intrapreneurship is a key ingredient.

That was one of the many lessons Ken Tencer learned through working with and speaking to Fortune 500 companies. As CEO of Spyder Works, Ken helps organizations to get their ideas off of the back of a napkin and successfully into the market. A successful speaker, entrepreneur and business developer, he has co-authored two books on innovation – The 90% Rule and the bestseller Cause a Disturbance (Morgan James Publishing), both avidly read by business leaders in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Ken sat down with us to talk about his upcoming book, his intrapreneurial ‘a-ha’ moment, the difference between innovation and culture, and what business leaders need to do to foster business-changing innovation and growth (and it’s much simpler than you might think).


What do you think is the role of the intrapreneur? What challenges do they face in actually helping to drive change within their companies?

So, a little background: In 2010, our first book on innovation had been successfully released, and I was on my way to Cannes to deliver a workshop at the annual World Innovation Convention.

What really struck me was that the companies attending this conference were drawn mostly from the halls of the Fortune 500. They didn’t just represent billions of dollars in spending and revenue; it was tens of billions. My business wasn’t even a rounding error for them. Nonetheless, my workshop made a big impression. I focused on the generation of small, incremental ideas: the “little things” that can leave a major footprint on your organization and, most importantly, its revenue.

After I’d finished, the Chief Innovation Officer of a major US company approached me. He said this had been a welcome change from all of the process-based discussions he had heard at the conference so far.

He said that his was an entrepreneurial company that had grown to mammoth size in just a few decades, and that today it costs more to submit an internal proposal for a new idea than it did to start the company in the first place.

This was a business-changing conversation for me. As an entrepreneur, I gained insight into the value that a boutique consulting firm can bring to the global marketplace. As an innovation thought leader, this encounter made me recognize the importance of intrapreneurship: eliminating the barriers that squelch bottom-up internal innovation.


It sounds like this was a personal a-ha moment for you. When you share this big corporate innovation folks, what’s their response?

I think it’s also that same ‘a-ha’, that same lightbulb moment, for them. It doesn’t have to be that hard.

Intrapreneuring, of course, is all about empowering your workforce to think like owners, and identify and implement new ideas to move the business forward.

It’s about management doing less telling, and taking more time to listen to and embrace employees’ ideas. It sounds simple. It should be intuitive. But true intrapreneurship has been surprisingly slow to emerge.

I start each day with three questions: what am I going to sell today? What one thing can I improve in my business today? And how do the answers to these questions tie in to my long-term strategy? Really, innovation or intrapreneurship comes down to engaging more people in these and other very simple questions: what are you hearing from your customers day in and day out, and what is it that you can provide to them as a business leader that will make their lives easier?

A lot of people try to complicate innovation or intrapreneurship, but it is actually about satisfying or delighting your customers. And the more people who are listening to them, the more people who are taking notes and feeding them back, the better you’re going to be as an organization. Innovation can be that simple, and you have all the tools and the team around you.


But it seems only 20% of employees talk to customers…

There was a recent article co-authored by McKinsey and the Disney Institute which said “The secret to delighting customers? Put employees first.” If business success depends on happy customers, happy customers come from energized, engaged employees. When employees are encouraged and motivated to do their best work, they will continually delight your customers with new and better products and services.

I think the problem might be how we define customers. The end customer, no, not everybody in the organization can talk to them. But – who are your customers, really? You as an individual, even if you’re in accounting or finance, if you’re internal-facing, you are delivering a document or a service to somebody, so your customer can be internal. And if you can make their lives easier, or if you can present information more cogently or simpler to them, then that is an innovation.

What a lot of people miss is that innovation can be process; innovation can be internally focused. For me, a customer is anybody that you’re working with, internally or externally, day in and day out. So in essence, we all have 100% contact daily with our customers.


How do you help companies to embed this hunger to serve the customer deeply into their organizations?

We start by putting teams together, a leader with the intrapreneur, and they’re going to work together through a series of stage gates to understand how to develop an idea and how to bring that to market. I think though, one of the most important things we do is we talk innovation culture. There’s a lot of use of that term today, and I think that most people don’t understand it. They see it as one idea. But innovation culture is fundamentally two very different things.

Innovation on its own is a very linear stage gated process, and even the creative part of innovation has it’s stage, it’s like: ok, gate zero you get to be creative, but then you become linear. Culture, on the other hand is behavioural driven, it’s not linear. It’s a very obtuse concept of how you work or how you feel within an organization, and how you engage people.

So what we’re trying to explain to people is again, innovation and culture are two different words, two different concepts – how do you bring them together? How do you start with a culture that engages people, recognizes their efforts, and when they want to go forward with something how do you then stage gate it to market?

Our 12 month process is teaching individuals to work together and then to develop, as part of this effort, a program to bring it to the greater organization by understanding how innovation and culture have an overlap. It’s a little bit of a different approach, because we’re starting with a very focused one-on-one idea, and once people get comfortable then we can help them design something larger for the company.

Often, with innovation and intrapreneurship, people are looking for huge solutions all the time: like, let’s roll this out to the company on day one, let’s hit a homerun on day one.

How about learning what it means? How about starting with a small idea, or in our case an individual team, and get the momentum going? Because there’s nothing like success to foster and breed future success.


So to you, what is an innovation culture? Is it about behaviours?

Yes, culture is about behaviours, especially within innovation. But I think that you have to recognize that behaviour starts at the top, it comes with accepting that as a leader you can’t do it all on your own. And the reality with a lot of leaders that might be my age, 50-ish plus – we were taught to keep our head down, put one foot in front of the other, shut our mouths. That was the culture that was inbred in companies 20, 30 years ago. Now we have to understand that doesn’t work anymore. The cycle of innovation, or the product lifecycle is so short, we can’t do it on our own.

The good news is that companies large and small are ripe with entrepreneurial talent.

Generation Y employees, and the younger millennials weren’t raised like the generations that came before them. They were not raised to be top-down followers, lifers or company men or women. They were raised to think independently and make a difference. Growing up with social media, millennials are accustomed to interaction, dialogue, opinion and debate … about anything and everything, at work or at play.

So culture has to begin with self-realization. It has to start with the owner or the manager or the group leader, and it has to flow through. And once that manager or leader understands their role, you have to create a process. We may not be able to give everybody in our organization a ‘red box’ like Adobe does to test new ideas. But we can certainly take the time to listen, mentor and fund a few choice ideas percolating within our organizations. We look at it as a pyramid where, on a day-to-day basis, there’s some recognition for ideas that come up. It may be as simple as a printed paper you put up a wall, so you walk in and there’s 40-50 ideas on it that a group has come up with. Then it scales to a quarterly and an annual recognition, publicly, of ideas that have come to pass.

Obviously you have to monitor and measure; at the end of the day it’s great to have an idea, but it has to be recognized and it has to be relevant and create value for the organization. So it’s culture which ultimately drives performance.


Any examples of organizations you’ve worked with that are better at this than others? What makes them better at it?

I won’t name names, but… when organizations approach us about innovation or intrapreneurship, it works better when it’s the CEO or the owner. We had one organization, a services firm, mid-size, a few hundred people, where from the get go the owner was open to engaging people at all levels in the workshops, and afterwards announced the program to the whole company through a series of events and talks that he was a part of. He had opened his doors to ideas at the beginning, directly to anybody in the company.

And I think that openness is the key to it. At one of our workshops, somebody said: ‘you know, I’m working for a company and the owner’s not really engaged in this whole intrapreneurship, thing but I really want to move it forward…what do I do?’ And glibly I said: you have to quit. If the owner or the manager or the leader is not engaged, it’s just not going anywhere.

Today, smart leaders drive innovation by making their workplace more appealing, stimulating and engaging. It’s no small change – you want to attract and retain the best of the best. But it’s all based on basic skills: listening, sharing, empowering and collaborating.


Does this play into the theme of your upcoming book?

The overall theme is never be satisfied. But yes – I like my writing to be very personal or based on something personal. Those three daily questions that I wrote about – what am I going to sell today, what can I improve, and how do I tie them into my overall strategy – it is the root of all innovation or intrapreneurship. So in the book, I play off of that personal understanding and how I think I’ve morphed as a leader.

My early learnings were very much ‘it’s all about me’; especially as an entrepreneur, when people criticize every move you make your tendency is to become an island. You need to learn to open up as a leader and embrace people, and I talk about that, and then I work them through an understanding of both innovation and culture and the processes to building that.

There’s no one answer to building your business. People love those shiny balls, and intrapreneurship seems to be that today. It’s a very powerful tool within innovation, but it’s only one tool in the toolbox. Innovation by acquisition, innovation by your R&D department for the longer term, large scale stage gated programs – they’re absolutely critical. So you can’t abandon everything else that you’re doing for intrapreneurship.

Whenever we work on intrapreneurship with a company, we never tell them it’s a substitute, because it’s not – it’s an addon to what you’re are already doing. I think that’s key.

And it’s not going to happen overnight. Our program is 12 months, and after working one-on-one with a company for that long we can push things through a little bit quicker. There’s no easy fixes in business; but, intrapreneurship is a very very powerful way of coming up with new ideas and bringing them to market, and engaging and attracting the right people to your company as well. Millennials want to be part of the conversation, or at least a conversation. Intrapreneurship is about conversing through your organization.


You’re one of our expert speakers at Intrapreneurship Conference Toronto in November. What’s happening in Toronto right now, and why do you think it’s the right city for our next event?

I think Canadians on the whole have always had to be more experimental. We have a very small population base for such a large land mass and it’s spread out. From the east to the west coast we’re very different: our geography, weather patterns, how we live and what’s important to us.

So as somebody living in Canada or doing business in Canada, we always have to learn to adapt to and adopt new ideas. We also have to become exporters very early in our business’ lifecycle. I think that we’re trained to think about new ideas, opportunities, cultures, and parts of the world very quickly in our business lives. And that openness tends to carry over and become easier to adopt as intrapreneurs here than for somebody who, say, can build a big business within ten miles of where they start out. So I think it’s the right city because, overall, the right mindset tends to already be here, or at least be easier to cultivate. I look forward to welcoming the global intrapreneurship community here in Toronto!