Companies have to keep their finger on the pulse of industry changes if they want their business to go the distance. Fifty years ago, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company was 75 years; now it’s less than 15. Between 1955 and 2015 88% of Fortune 500 companies had shuttered — in many cases, because they failed to evolve.
Innovation sustains businesses through boom and bust cycles, and the best people to drive change are employees — also known as intrapreneurs.
Like bromance and brunch, “intrapreneur” is a portmanteau — a mashup of the terms “internal” and “entrepreneur.” Depending on who you ask, the term means something a little different, but in short, it’s a current employee who leads the development of new ideas, products, or processes within a company.
The final products from either entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs are evaluated by the same criteria. The difference is, entrepreneurs usually build a product from the ground up, and bootstrap the initial phase or hustle for seed funding. Intrapreneurs iterate on existing product lines without worrying about startup funding or day-to-day operations.
“[Intrapreneurs are] creating something that hasn’t been done before or done quite the same way,” said MIT Sloan professor Michael Cusumano, an expert in strategy, product development, and entrepreneurship.
How intrapreneurship benefits employees and employers
Intrapreneurship empowers employees who are most familiar with a process or product line to develop complementary offerings for their employer. For example, Gmail is an intrapreneurial technology that emerged from Google’s policy that employees should spend 20% of their time developing side projects. Amazon Web Services, which started as an internal project to help Amazon scale its systems circa 2000, is now the most successful cloud infrastructure company in the world.
Granted, not every intrapreneurial idea is a success. Google Glass, Facebook Home, and Apple’s Newton device are among the more famous failures out of Silicon Valley. But embracing the intrapreneurial spirit gives companies a chance to test, pivot, and diversify, rather than fade into oblivion.
Both entrepreneurship experts and employee engagement specialists agree that companies can’t survive without it.
“[Intrapreneurship] is not easy, but if you don’t do it, you’re going to die,” said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. “Your company is going to die. We can see that over and over again. You might think it, but tomorrow’s promised to nobody. Darwin said it’s not the strongest that survives, it’s not the most intelligent that survives, it’s the one that adapts to change that survives.”
Intrapreneurship also increases employee engagement, which is critical to company performance during an economic downturn or recession. “When you ask people about their intentions during a recession, it's pretty clear that disengaged workers are just waiting around to see what happens,” Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of employee engagement and wellbeing, said. “Engaged workers, though, have bought into what the organization is about and are trying to make a difference. This is why they're usually the most productive workers."
Intrapreneurship lets employees flex some creative muscle and feel engaged with their work. In a 2016 study from Deloitte, Millennials — now the largest generation in the workforce — reported that they want opportunities to progress and lead, and a sense of meaning from their work. Intrapreneurship checks all those boxes.
As Entrepreneur explains, “If an intrapreneur sees that their idea is valued by their organization, it leads to a feeling that they can make a positive impact on the company’s future, ultimately heightening motivation. If you then, also, implement a system that rewards innovation, you have employees that are incentivized.”
Skills you need to be an intrapreneur
Intrapreneurship looks different for everyone; it’s open to any employee who can identify the opportunities in a company’s offerings and create a solution. Forbes says intrapreneurs are:
- Risk takers who like to push the envelope and find new methods to do what has already been done before
- Employees who are good at looking for ways to improve existing products and services and strive to fill unmet needs in the market
- People who find new approaches to outdated processes
- Individuals who are constantly looking for ways to develop the business and move a company forward
If your company doesn’t have an explicit intrapreneurship policy, like Google’s 20% rule, consider proposing a long-term program or a short-term initiative like a hackathon. If you need more ideas, search for the term “intrapreneurship” on Fishbowl, or post a question on a new thread.
Start your journey
Innovation is a popular topic in TED talks and stump speeches, but its value goes beyond lip service. For companies, it’s indicative of long-term sustainability. For employees, it increases engagement and job satisfaction.
If you’re looking for a role that allows you to weave intrapreneurship into your workflow, use Glassdoor’s company comparison tool to find the right fit.