Innovative intrapreneurs

3 tactics to turn employees into innovators

How to move innovation beyond the c-suite by motivating internal intrapreneurs

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Far too often, employees feel like innovation is off-limits. They know that it’s happening in R&D and hear it trumpeted by senior leaders, but they aren’t sure how to gain access to what lies beyond the velvet ropes. As an innovation strategist, my research and work with organizations across industries have shown that keeping innovation cordoned off comes at a high cost to innovation and engagement.

When innovation is invite-only, organizations lose access to creative problem-solvers outside the typically tapped group, including “intrapreneurs” or internal entrepreneurs. These action-oriented and passionate employees are eager to help advance existing business goals in new ways. My emerging research shows that when intrapreneurs are supported, engagement increases significantly. When they’re not supported, they get frustrated and leave.


A new definition for failure

Silicon Valley made “fail fast” a household phrase. But plenty of leaders in traditional organizations are risk-averse. And why shouldn’t they be? They grew up at a time when failure was the enemy—and certainly wasn’t rewarded. Wall Street isn’t kind to “failure,” either. Their risk aversion spreads throughout the organization, reducing psychological safety and the new and different ideas that can lead to innovation. Addressing this issue starts with a semantics and mindset shift from “fail” to “learn.” If people feel clearly that all learning is valued, even if that learning is a “failure,” they’ll be more likely to take smart risks.


So, how do organizations get their innovation groove back? Drop the velvet ropes and permanently open up to greater innovation in your organization. Here are three actionable strategies you can implement to set the stage for more innovation.

3 actionable strategies to increase innovation:

1. Build micro-cultures of innovation.

Even the most seasoned leaders can be overwhelmed by the idea of driving cultural change. They know transformation efforts require tremendous resources and that the majority fall flat. A sudden jump might fail, but you can gradually shift your company’s culture by making the shift “micro,” that is, small changes driven by intrapreneurial efforts.

Start by inviting more employees into innovation. For a particularly risk-averse client of ours in the insurance industry, we created “quick wins,” such as setting aside 10 minutes at the start of existing monthly meetings to ask:

  • What problems have you seen or heard about that we need to solve?
  • What makes you think, ‘Why do we do it that way?’

These non-threatening questions act as prompts and platforms for sharing employee insights. They set the stage by being the first to share out-of-the-box ideas to create a more psychologically safe environment. They also remind everyone that the first phase is listening, not judging.


In action: When my client practiced this positioning, collaboration and innovation know-how increased, and time to execution decreased. Over time, more team members were invited into this process. Connective tissue built between these small groups and observable shifts in innovative actions and behaviors resulted across larger swaths of the organization from this bottom-up approach.

2. Get scientific about innovation experimentation.

Like finance or HR, innovation must be a discipline in your organization. Having a simple, proven process to follow helps further democratize innovation. All employees can learn about innovation and how to reduce innovation risk through experimentation—establishing a hypothesis or hunch and taking a series of actions to help you prove or disprove that hunch. Start by ensuring you’re solving the right problem, then create a thoughtful list of “micro” actions to ensure that action is taken.


For example, if the problem you’re solving is “make innovation more accessible for global employees,” you wouldn’t want to list an action as “influence senior leadership.” That’ll stop most employees in their tracks because it feels massive and lacks specific direction. A micro-action starts with a verb, is actionable, and often can be completed in 15 minutes or less. For example, “ask Priya for an introduction to her peer in marketing” or “draft a set of six interview questions for the VP of HR.”

In action: In one global pharmaceutical organization, we helped leaders (comprised mostly of scientists and technologists) make this mindset shift by likening our innovation method to the scientific method. We make an observation, create a hypothesis, and test it out. If we prove our hypothesis, this is learning. If we disprove our hypothesis, this is also learning.


3. Add discipline to disruption

There’s a romanticized notion of innovation as “lightbulb” moments. True innovation isn’t like that. Innovation thrives best within simple, proven, smart frameworks. Our company once partnered with a government entity to foster innovation through an eight-week workshop on solving a major organizational need. The processes were laid out ahead of time, and one group made a massive breakthrough by the end of the sprint by following a system of consistent iteration and focused learning—in part because it reduced the overwhelming scale of the issue they were tackling, and in part because they were learning quickly and adjusting as they learned.


Structuring your company’s innovation methods starts with communicating your expectations and ensuring that innovation processes can be measured, evaluated, and repeated. Ask yourself questions like “How often should we meet?” and “When should we abandon an idea?”

In action: While working with one Fortune 100 retailer, we found that functional silos, bureaucracy, and hierarchy were major barriers to innovation. To address these barriers and increase access to innovation, we convened a small group of cross-functional employees to identify and solve a specific problem. They met weekly for 3-6 hours for 10 weeks. During that time, we taught them simple innovation frameworks and created opportunities for interaction with each other and senior leaders. After those meetings began, we estimate that it took an average of eight fewer interactions (calls, meetings, or emails) to move forward on actions thanks to the increased trust and connection between colleagues.


Not everyone has to be involved in innovation. However, the intrapreneurs within your company should be both appreciated and supported. Organizations that support innovation are full of people excited to be there and committed to improving things. That’s what makes an organization healthy, financially and culturally. So, pull back the velvet rope and watch the innovative ideas and engagement come through.

Dr. Simone Ahuja is founder of Blood Orange, a global innovation strategy firm.