Harness Your Inner Intrapreneur: 5 Traits of Effective Corporate Innovators

Golden Rule of Corporate Innovation: People > process

It’s natural for companies to think that innovation can be managed with a stage-gated process – a linear set of activities that methodically transforms ideas into new businesses. However, exploring growth opportunities that diverge from the core business and venture into new markets, services, and assets can be risky, ambiguous and unforgiving. Process plays a role in mitigating uncertainty, but too much rigidity can cause innovation projects to become caged birds. Space and autonomy to explore new possibilities, experiment and pivot freely is required for growth opportunities that are at the fringes of, or beyond, an organization’s existing capabilities.

We’ve found that the companies we work with are evolving their innovation processes to be more resilient to uncertainty, and more curious about possibility, by empowering the people operating the process. These corporate innovation practitioners are intrapreneurs:

intrapreneur (n.) – a manager within a company who behaves like an entrepreneur to take calculated risk in order to explore, identify and develop innovative products, services or experiences

Intrapreneurs have the unique task of exploring and developing innovative growth opportunities that may sit outside of existing business units. They possess the entrepreneurial chops to translate customer insights into compelling business concepts, in addition to being savvy navigators of the corporate environment as orphans of, and partners to, the core business.

Peer Insight comes across many such professionals in our work with clients. We’ve compiled a list of 5 fundamental traits that intrapreneurs possess or strive to develop.

5 Traits of Intrapreneurs

1.    Empathetic Opportunism

Intrapreneurs are expected to have a hand on the heart of the customer to feel their pain, an ear to the ground to hear happenings in the market, and eyes on the horizon to see the future of their industry and technology. Growth opportunities lie at the convergence of these three factors, but should derive most from the needs of the customers they’re designing for. A healthy dose of empathy and a willingness and flexibility to get out of the office and into your customers’ context is critical for intrapreneurs to discover breakthrough opportunities.

2.    Networked Leadership

Due to the unique focus and flexibility required for innovation projects, they often sit outside of traditional business units. That’s tricky because the necessary resources and expertise she needs may reside in the business units or other shared functions of the organizations, which are usually too focused on reaching their respective objectives to give attention to seemingly unrelated projects.

A successful intrapreneur forms relationships with internal stakeholders and learns how to appeal to their shared objectives.  They tap into their internal network to gather input, get access to resources and cultivate ambassadors for their growth initiatives. Intrapreneurs also have a sensibility as to when they need to tap into that network – involving stakeholders too early or too late can cause opportunities to be halted or killed due to speculation or a perceived conflict of interest. 

3.    Comfort with Ambiguity

Bringing something new to the market or expanding the capabilities of an organization require venturing into the unknown. Organizations have a primal aversion to this level of uncertainty and risk taking. Intrapreneurs are an anomaly – they are comfortable confronting ambiguity and taking strategic and affordable steps to reduce it.

4.    Learns & Adapts

Failure is another area where innovation is unique. Successful intrapreneurs view failure as valuable learning that they can use to refine, pivot or scrap their concepts. Their primary objective is to learn and test affordably through user research, prototyping and other experiments that validates the desirability, scalability and feasibility of a concept.

5.    Storytelling

As we’ve established, new growth opportunities are shrouded in ambiguity with respect to how the market will respond to them.  It’s difficult for people who hold the purse in the organization to allocate budgets for innovation projects that have unpredictable outcomes. Successful intrapreneurs use videos, photos and other media to make the voice of the customer real for internal decision-makers so they can feel the problem and understand the opportunity that they’re advocating for. Storytelling with qualitative customer data is much more difficult for decision-makers to refute, and much more illustrative of opportunity, than a spreadsheet with positive numbers.

Are you a current or budding intrapreneur? Did any of this strike a chord for you? What else would you add? Write me at mjohnson@peerinsight.com and let’s talk about it!

Peer Insight develops entrepreneurs within big companies (aka intrapreneurs). Learn more here!

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