When I returned to an established, stable, and traditional corporate environment after a four-year stint as an entrepreneur, I viewed the world of work through a different lens. Being an entrepreneur had taught me to create value for my customers. Ultimately, not only did I own the business, but I also owned every aspect of the input, process, and outcome. Sitting in my new environment, I knew my mindset had shifted. I was different. I “owned” my area of responsibility and tried to connect my experiences, skills, and talents to the larger purpose of the organization. I had heard of the term, “intrapreneur” and as time passed, I loosely thought of myself as one. Looking back to that time I can now say for sure; entrepreneurship had transformed me into an Intrapreneur.
I was surprised to find that my constant pushing against traditional ways of working was met with resistance that was couched in phrases like:
- “We don’t do that around here.”
- “We don’t have time to try that.”
- “That’s too risky.”
- “We have tried that before.”
- “Submit a formal business case for that.”
- “You will never get that approved.”
- “It’s not your job to think about that.”
Intrapreneurs are Grassroots Innovators
You too may have heard similar sentiments. Do not be discouraged. Intrapreneurs are bottom-up innovators who constantly challenge the status quo. We see problems as opportunities and must learn to navigate these and other barriers.
The pandemic has exposed colossal challenges in countries, industries, and communities around the globe. The world needs intrapreneurs. The figure below indicates how disruptive trends are a source for intrapreneurial ideas; and the pandemic is a disruption like no other.
Crisis Breeds Top-Down Innovation
You have heard it said that necessity is the mother of invention. McKinsey & Company research suggests organizations that innovate through crises outperform other companies during and after the crises. The study also suggests that leading an organization to success through and after the pandemic requires fundamental shifts in mindsets—starting at the top. One of the areas of mindset change is managing fear and risks. When intrapreneurs challenge the status quo by asking questions, leaders must learn to listen with curiosity before immediately shutting down a fresh approach.
According to Jean-Philippe Deschamps, emeritus Professor of Technology and Innovation Management at IMD in Lausanne (Switzerland), bottom-up innovation is fueled by many ideas initiated by employees, as opposed to top-down innovation, which is fueled by a strong vision (The Eight Attributes of Bottom-Up Innovation Leaders | InnovationManagement). Intrapreneurship is a way to align both top-down and bottom-up innovation to perpetually provide uncommon solutions to unprecedented challenges.
Intrapreneurship is your superpower.
You know what it feels like when you are flexing your intrapreneurial muscles. You are in the zone. You feel energized and strengthened by solving problems creatively. Remember, you are also lifting the organization.
What more could you do to align bottom-up intrapreneurship to top-down innovation?
· Team up with other intrapreneurs.
No one creates in a vacuum. Collaborate with other intrapreneurs of diverse perspectives. The more diverse the intrapreneurial input, the more impactful the innovative outcome. Build cross-functional bridges. Also, build external bridges with other like-minded intrapreneurs within the Global Intrapreneurs Institute’s network.
· Get small wins.
To help risk-averse leaders who fear failure, start small. Look for “low hanging fruit” where you can make innovative changes at minimal costs and consequence to the organization. Getting small wins creates credibility and trust. After this, leaders are more willing to release additional resources to launch new innovations.
· Partner with a leader who can champion your ideas.
If there is no formal process to take ideas upstream, partner with an innovative middle manager. Middle managers are uniquely positioned between the top and the bottom to communicate innovative vision downstream, align intrapreneurial activities to the vision, and sponsor the fresh approach upstream.
A Lesson from Pfizer
Fast Company has awarded New York-based Pfizer, a company that has been in existence for almost 175 years, number one on the list for the 10 most innovative biotechnology companies of 2021. Pfizer and German manufacturing partner BioNTech managed to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine in record time.
Pfizer has a history of crisis-spurred innovation. During World War II, they responded to an appeal from the United States Government to expedite penicillin manufacturing to treat soldiers. Of the companies pursuing mass production of penicillin, Pfizer alone used a new fermentation technology.
Pfizer and BioNTech are projected to exceed the original global production target for COVID-19 vaccines by as much as 20% this year. In a recent interview, Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla stated,
“These are stunning numbers that are giving us a clear indication that liberation is coming. It is a testament to the power of science, and the power of human ingenuity.”
I cannot help but think of all the unsung intrapreneurial heroes at Pfizer. They helped make them number one in innovation this year and are accelerating the next normal globally.
Continue to flex your intrapreneurial muscles within your area of influence. The world needs perpetual innovation at record speed. Remember, intrapreneurship is your superpower!