Intrapreneurs: don’t let love scare them away!

13 April 2018

By Reinout d’Engelbronner, PACE Innovation at ING, IDCP* participant 2017-2018


It’s almost needless to explain that the environment of corporates from all kinds of industries is changing faster by the day; dealing with continuously changing demands from their customers, either riding or missing waves of new technology and facing more and more competition from old and new players. Innovation seems to be more important than ever before, therefore many companies are in the midst of a transition to become more innovative. As part of this transformation, their people are an important ingredient for success. Companies aim to select the right people to work on innovation initiatives, recruited both internally and externally. The type of people that are capable to drive change, often so-called intrapreneurs.

I believe that although, as part of their transformation journey, corporates are trying to identify and empower their intrapreneurs to work on innovation they are actually risking to lose them by doing so.

To start I would like to give some context around the intrapreneurs and innovation initiatives I am referring to. Over the past few years I have worked in several acceleration programs for corporates guiding teams that work on innovation initiatives, going from idea to validated concept. To make these programs a success companies aim for a setup that offers room for change. They compose multi-disciplinary teams of internal employees, potential intrapreneurs, combined with some externals bringing new expertise and a fresh mindset. They look for an inspirational environment, preferably out of the existing office. They apply new innovation processes inspired by start-ups and leadership tries to move from being directive to being a mentor, creating room for autonomy and building an entrepreneurial culture. Although on paper this sounds like Walhalla for intrapreneurs, in reality I have multiple times seen it end-up in them leaving the company. The actual people these companies cherish so much.

How can this be the case? I have some thoughts I would like to share.

First of all I believe that an important aspect relates to Human Resources issues. In most cases employees are assigned to innovation initiatives only for a specific amount of time causing difficulties. Most companies are organized in functional silos and therefore compose temporary multi-disciplinary teams. Depending on the context, teams are sometimes formed for a few weeks to months (incremental innovation) and sometimes a longer period (disruptive innovation). A similarity of both cases is that employees are taken out of their current role, work in an entirely new environment and at a moment in time will return to their old job. This setup has an interesting impact on people that needs to dealt with.

Over last few years I have observed many people, including myself, who started hesitating during the innovation program about going back to their old job. Being in a fresh environment people find room for reflection about what they did before, what they currently do and most important translate that to what they want to do going forward. Sometimes they like the new innovation way of working so much that they want to continue doing that. In other cases people just come to the conclusion that they want to do something different than before. Either way, companies will have to deal with the rapidly changing minds of their employees. Currently it seems they don’t know how.

To begin, companies appear to be not ready for addressing and openly discussing the change of ambition of their intrapreneurs. I have seldom seen a clear alignment at the start between employees, their managers, innovation programs and HR of what could come next. On top of that there is a lack of structured dialogue during the program. An obvious reason could be the simple fact that no-one expects the changing minds. And since there are several parties involved and people work remote of their former (and future) colleagues it might be hard to organize adequate interaction.

Another problem is that, once they have been identified, companies appear to be unequipped to facilitate the fresh ambitions of their intrapreneurs. First of all because people are sooner or later expected back in their former role, where they are needed. This puts pressure on going back to their old environment that is most likely not suited to support their new preferences. In case alternatives career opportunities are explored, the problem arises that the paths to follow for intrapreneurs in a corporate are commonly not yet paved. From short-term perspective the most obvious option would be to keep on working on innovation initiatives. Yet such opportunities depend on the appetite and capacity that the organization has for innovation, often not offering possibilities for a permanent role. From a long-term perspective it’s also an uncertain journey to start since few companies have clear career paths defined for intrapreneurs. Despite the fact that intrapreneurs are the type of people that long for some amount of uncertainty, it definitely impacts their career decisions.

Next to the complexities around Human Resources, I have observed something else that I believe might be impacting the future plans of intrapreneurs. I call it the phenomenon of ‘false autonomy’, which I will explain here.

A vision of probably any corporate that nowadays pursues to build innovation capabilities will most certainly include phrases like: ‘creating an environment where calculated risks can be taken, room for failure, building an entrepreneurial culture and autonomy for teams. I am happy to see these ambitions, but I think most organizations underestimate the delicacies of such a cultural transformation. Without opening Pandora’s box about cultural change, I would like to limit myself to a specific observation I have made multiple times over the last years that impacted intrapreneurs.

In most cases I have seen great intentions of managers transforming to a mentoring leadership style, providing a high level of autonomy to teams. In some cases this worked smoothly, creating room for ownership, entrepreneurship and bringing fantastic business results. Yet several times I have observed that both teams and leaders were struggling with it.

What happened in these cases is that leadership felt the need to give teams more freedom, which on itself is a great thing. Yet what was forgotten is that such freedom should go hand in hand with a clear alignment on expectations. Despite solid scoping efforts, there often appeared to be unclear, misunderstood or hidden expectations from the start, changing expectations over time and a lack of mentoring interaction to have an ongoing conversation about expectations without harming the autonomy of the team.

The outcome was that teams started running and at a moment in time leadership found out that the project was not going as they wanted. As a result leadership increased control and in the worst case pulled the Andon, making a hard intervention. Instead of growing a fruitful autonomous environment, the opposite had happened. Leaders were unhappy and the teams highly demotivated, sometimes even leading to individuals rethinking their future position. This is the result of what I call ‘false autonomy’.

You might say that this concept could be applicable to any situation in a corporate, which is true. I would like to stretch however that the impact is extrapolated in the context of innovation. First of all because innovation initiatives are by definition uncertain, about creativity and new ideas. This makes the chances for such a thing happening extremely big. Secondly, because the people working on innovation initiatives are selected specifically for being entrepreneurial, taking risks and working autonomously. A clash like this and development of increased control will result in the exact opposite of empowering them, worst case risking to lose them.

Altogether, I believe that both the Human Resources issues and impact of ‘false autonomy’ as described above should be addressed more seriously within corporates. Risking to lose the intrapreneurs that companies are actually searching for is a major risk. Although in this article I won’t go into details about potential solutions I would like to share two main recommendations. First of all to rethink (or create) the HR approach around intrapreneurs as key element of the transformation journey. Such that intrapreneurs can be identified, empowered and motivated to develop within the company. Second, to avoid ‘false autonomy’ by building strong informal connections between leadership and innovation teams besides the formal interactions often in place, creating the level trust and guidance needed for intrapreneurial impact. The teams where this is managed properly are the ones that truly excel.

Thank you.


Background information

This opinion piece is one of the deliverables of participants of the *Innovation Driver Certification Programme (IDCP). 

Author: Reinout d’Engelbronner, PACE Innovation at ING, IDCP participant 2017-2018


Disclaimer: This is a personal opinion piece. Any views represented in this post are personal and belong solely to the author and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity.

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