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One of the proven methods of extracting innovation from an otherwise stale organization has been to embark upon “skunkworks” projects. These are projects that are cobbled together by passionate instigators within an organization who see an opportunity to build upon or extend something they have happened across in their day-to-day work.
Gifford Pinchot has termed these people “intrapreneurs”.
Pinchot calls intrapreneurs “the dreamers who do”. They are the people within your organization who make things happen. They take an idea, pull together a team and then deliver the outcome … and when it comes to innovation within your business, you can’t live without them. Why?
The intrapreneur is unusually dedicated. When Texas Instruments analyzed 50 of their successful and unsuccessful product launches, they realized that the failures occurred when a “zealous volunteer champion” was not involved. It was these volunteers, the intrapreneurs, who would persist despite the roadblocks and issues – recruiting others as needed, lobbying for support and refusing to let an idea whither on the vine.
The innovation company, 3M, had the idea for post-it notes kicking around the business for almost thirty years before it was transformed into an “overnight success”. It wasn’t until the right combination of intrapreneurs came together that this office-staple gained traction in the marketplace.
There are many examples of the need for intrapreneurs. But the question remains a personal one – what are YOU doing as a leader to foster intrpreneurial spirit? Are you sponsoring innovative projects? Are you performing the role of “climate maker” – creating what Pinchot calls a widely shared belief in innovation across your enterprise? If not, why not?
It is precisely when the business environment slows that leaders are needed. And perhaps, more importantly, it is in these times when opportunities present themselves unexpectedly. Do you have the teams and resources capable of exploiting these opportunities? Look closely at your village … your intrapreneurs may be closer than you think.
Nina Nets It Out: In tough times, businesses have a tendency to “batten down the hatches”. However, while your competitors are putting their heads down, they may be missing the opportunities that change facilitates. The intrapreneurs in your organization can provide you with a distinct competitive advantage – tap their expertise, passion and commitment to outcomes.
Ideas *do* need fostering through leadership. And business needs to reward its intrapreneurs with timely and appropriate recognition.
Hi Mother Geek,
Indeed you’re correct that ideas need fostering and those who do that work need recognition. In fact, it is this cycle that keeps it moving forward.
Great post Nina! I have chosen this post as one of my Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week which can be found here: http://www.maximizepossibility.com/employee_retention/2008/11/the-rainmaker-2.html
I would agree with this — in good economic times.
In tough economic times, it is exceptionally difficult for management to be disciplined enough to focus on innovation and moving forward. Add in some layoffs and everyone crawls in a hole.
How do you do skunkworks projects when the world around you (say Citigroup with their 70,000+ layoffs this year) is falling apart?
There can be no doubt that difficult economic times such as those we are experiencing now can stop innovation in its tracks. And indeed people hunker down to ride out the storm and survive. However, there is a school of thought that says that perhaps innovation is just the thing the doctor ordered in such chaotic times. A new innovative effort to draw people’s attention can distract from the negative things going on or at least mitigate the negativity to some extent. But, this is not to say that all companies can pursue such initiatives in difficult times. Sometimes this just isn’t possible. However, don’t overlook the possibility that sometimes it is possible.
I’m agreeing with you, Nina. The management discipline to do the innovative stuff is hard in good times — and very difficult in tough times like now.
So, a reality check. Yes, there are opportunities, but one needs to be laser focused to ignore the negatives out there.
The current times are surely shining a spotlight on the issue you address in your comment. And for sure you are correct that a laser focus is necessary to pursue opportunities amongst all of the negatives happening today. However, innovation may just be one of the things we are all needing to help us rise above all of this negativity. So, don’t let bad or challenging times stifle innovation, but do, as you suggest, use a laser focus to determine just where innovation will offer the best prospects.
One other comment here. In order to attract internal resources to projects, there needs to be some semblance of a budget.
In tough economic times, an employee is faced with the choice of working on a skunkworks project with no budget — and taken away from working on their own goals — with a possible reward if management comes through in the end rewarding success and not penalizing failure. Businesses drive priorities through budgets, even if they are small. Without a budget, the risk to employees to take on the work goes up pretty high.
While I believe the exact answer in these times is to double up on innovation, the management practices need to be in place for employees — even passionate ones — to accept work on these projects without jeopardizing their careers.
So how can management put those practices in place? (oh…another article to write!)
I agree with you that in most cases, a budget is necessary. However, I have seen companies that offer time to intrapreneurs vs. dedicating separate budgets Then, these innovative folks utilize this time to pursue interests that have potential company benefits. So, in tough economic times, when budgets may be challenging to obtain, offering time to these innovators can enable them to dedicate their focus to developing new products or services.
This said, I agree that management practices must be in place to empower innovation during difficult financial periods. People must understand that their efforts, and hopefully successes, will be rewarded when the opportunity arises. One thought on the management practices that is coming to mind is similar to how companies can cut costs without layoffs – for example, flex time, shortened work weeks, etc. If management puts similar concepts in place for innovation, they’re sure to reap the rewards!