Bridging the Innovation-to-Business Gap

June 20, 2012

Many companies these days articulate (in one way or another) the desire for more creativity and innovation from their employees. What they really want are growth and profits realized from seizing new opportunities that their competitors missed or mismanaged in some way. If you take a closer look the problem, the challenge typically isn’t a lack of ideas – dig deeply enough and you’ll find people with plenty of ideas – but there is a problem with taking these innovative ideas and building them into a viable, profitable business.

What you really need is to create the conditions that not only cultivates ideas, but harnesses the entrepreneurial spirit and applies it for the benefit of your organization. Instead of following the traditional entrepreneurial route of leaving a company to launch a new venture, companies need “inside entrepreneurs” who takes the initiative to undertake something new while continuing to work for their existing organization.

Companies need intrapreneurs. Elizabeth and Gifford Pinchot coined the term intrapreneur in 1978 in an article, Intra-Corporate Entreprenuership, and their observations and recommendations made in 1978 remain solid to this day.

Who is an intrapreneur, and what do they do?

An intrapreneur isn’t necessarily an inventor, but rather someone who bridges the gap between being a manager and an inventor. An intrapreneur contributes to the organization by taking new ideas or working prototypes and nurturing them into a profitable business for others to manage.

This requires a certain mix of qualities that are identical to that of entrepreneurs. First and foremost, they must have that itch to scratch – that there is a product or service that the world needs and these intrapreneurs are convinced that they are the ones who can provide it. They are driven by pursuing ventures that are meaningful to them, which gives them and others that they recruit a strong sense of purpose coupled with a relentless motivation to be successful.

This means that intrapreneurs need team-building skills and a solid understanding of the business and the marketplace. They don’t need to be as politically-savvy as experienced executives who are capable of working through multiple layers of management, but they do need the ability to make rapid decisions with often-times incomplete or inadequate information.

As the article points out, organizations need to internally replicate conditions that make entrepreneurship effective. Among some of the conditions:
  • The intrapreneur must being willing to risk something of value – such as foregoing pay raises or taking a pay cut.
  • The rewards of success must be shared between the company and the intrapreneur.
  • The intrapreneur should have the opportunity to build up an equivalent to capital above and beyond bonuses that he or she has full control of to invest in future projects.
The last point is intriguing, because it puts forth the notion of not only self-funded, independent initiatives, but the fact that organizations can not only develop “inside entrepreneurs,” but internal venture capitalists as well. These “intra-capitalists” are those individuals who have proven that they can build a team and be successful in the market, and are now able to invest in other employees and projects that they deem worthy of backing. This has the effect of creating a virtuous cycle of innovation and intrapreneurship that is continually renewing the corporation and keeping it competitive.

Innovation isn’t the complete answer to competitiveness, the ability to recognize the right opportunities and then successfully nurture and guide those opportunities to market is the bridge that companies need to build.