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Andy Bailey

EF Corporate Solutions


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Five ways to foster intrapreneurial thinking


Entrepreneurs take risks and find new ways to do things. And for many years, they have had no place in large organisations for this very reason. They break the rules. They get bored quickly. And they generally have ideas that go beyond protocol and process.

But with the rise of digital technology, companies are finding they need to adapt to new challenges. Customers are making it clear they want their brands to deliver more, faster and better than ever before.

The traditional hierarchical, top-down organisational structure is not solving this problem. In fact, it’s making it worse.

Incumbency of market position is leading to complacency for a lot of companies. You only need to look at Blockbuster and Nokia as global companies that had all the information in front of them, but chose to ignore the warning signs – things are changing.

Adapting to market change is a big problem. And entrepreneurial thinking is the way around it. Who is better at navigating a business through the fast-swirling and unpredictable currents of the modern marketplace?

Entrepreneurs understand that risks are great – but so, too, are potential rewards. And that’s a mindset that can drive creative thinking and new opportunities at even the biggest companies.

So how can you encourage your employees to be intrapreneurial?

Here are five big things I’ve found useful:

1. Listen

Listen. Are you open to fresh ideas? Does your leadership team learn from others, no matter who they are or what they do?

A culture that encourages intrapreneurial thinking doesn’t spring up out of nothing: it’s created, brick by brick, by a company’s leaders looking and listening. Most people don’t listen. Today, more people than ever are hitting the send button and simply broadcasting their thoughts.

Listening is the key to good story telling. It’s the key to spotting opportunity. And it needs to be part of your culture so the entire company can recognize what customers really need.

As Netflix highlighted in its widely hailed, 127-slide statement establishing its corporate culture, “Enron had a nice-sounding value statement with four values: integrity, communication, respect, excellence. Their four values were chiseled in marble in the main lobby, but had little to do with the real values of the organisation.”

To foster intrapreneurial thinking, you need to demonstrate those same qualities yourself.

Good communication underpins collaboration and creative spirit. Globally and internally – the communication channels need to be open – but let’s face it, culture comes down to the way people behave and treat each other. And we have to talk to each other up, down, across and outside the organisation to get that right.

A great litmus test to see if your sales guys are listening is to ask, “What do we do?”.

If the answer is about product sales or solutions, there’s a good chance they’ve got it wrong. If they talk about customer problems and driving wider value, they’re on the right track.

2. Respect ideas

Entrepreneurs are people who believe in their ideas. They also believe there are enough other people out there who will think the same.

To encourage intrapreneurial thinking, make sure your employees get that message loud and clear: we value you and your ideas.

People can be independent, autonomous and entrepreneurial “when the culture is strong,” says Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky, when “you can trust everyone to do the right thing.” An IBM report on “Cultivating organisational creativity in an age of complexity” described how cello professor Wesley Baldwin found such an attitude inspired great performances from his students:

“He had noticed that when he had modest aspirations for his students, who were sometimes as young as 14 or 15, they performed according to his minimal expectations,” the report stated. “But when he changed his own mindset and related to his students as true artists, and expected them to dig inside of themselves and express through their music that which makes them feel truly alive, the change in results was astounding.”

3. Think – ‘What would we do if we were a startup?’

Startups, especially in the tech industry, are known for their free-wheeling work atmosphere. Think about some of the Silicon Valley firms you’ve read about, and what pictures come to mind? Pet dogs hanging out with their owners in the office, young engineers on skateboards, maybe even drop-in Zumba classes in the afternoon.

While you don’t have to transform your offices into a game room or pet park, it doesn’t hurt to adopt a bit more of that startup mentality. Make a habit of asking – what would you do differently if you were a new business just launching. How would you appeal to customers?

This is really about delivering value as fast as possible.

 4. Look outside

Talking to the same people week after week will only bring about the same results. If you need to disrupt, introduce an outside element.

Intrapreneurial companies talk with people outside of their organisations on a regular basis – whether in formal discussion forums or in virtual online “jams” – and listen to what others are saying. They remain open to the possibility of finding fresh new ideas pretty much everywhere they look.

5. Encourage disruption

Possibly the best way to get your people to think as intrapreneurs is to actually encourage them to find new revenues themselves – and reward them for it.

This is exciting. It promotes hope for employees who are bored and want to be more creative. Of course, it’s not possible to spin off a thousand startups a year. But it’s good to have the option of serving customers in new ways. Big business desperately needs to embrace this to compete more aggressively. 


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