Intrapreneurs: Create an atmosphere that allows them to thrive in your small business

Among the materials a client sent me recently for a book chapter he and I are working on was this quote from a blog post by David Nordfors, founding executive director of the Stanford Center for Innovation and Communication:

“When someone tries to innovate within a traditional organization, few will understand what he/she is doing, but everybody will understand who is a troublemaker. After the innovation has been embraced by the organization, few will remember who started it, but everybody will remember who was a troublemaker. This is the dilemma encountered by many intrapreneurs -they risk punishment for success.”

Intrapreneurs are people working inside an organization who have many of the attributes of entrepreneurs. They are risk-takers who are not satisfied with the status quo, and they have the passion and drive needed to make innovation and change happen. They also exhibit curiosity and aren’t satisfied with just being an expert in one narrow field. Because they frequently question the way things have always been done, they can, as Nordfors points out, often be labeled as troublemakers.

Organizations of all sizes, including small businesses, need intrapreneurs. This has probably never been truer than in today’s highly competitive business environment, where innovation is the lifeblood of most companies. Innovate or die, is how some experts put it.

Yet some of the characteristics that make intrapreneurs essential are also the ones that can cause others in an organization to want to push them out. The lovers of the status quo, the people who say things like “We’ve done it this way for years and it’s been good enough so far” feel threatened by an intrapreneur’s natural aptitude questioning whether things can and should be improved.

As the company leader, it is your job to make sure intrapreneurs can thrive in your organization. This begins with the hiring process, where you should ask questions designed to uncover whether someone has the potential to be an intrapreneur. For instance, you might ask a candidate to tell you about a time they took a risk in their job and how things turned out. Ask them how they overcame obstacles to achieve results. And ask questions designed to find out if they exhibit the curiosity that is a necessary part of being able to innovate.

Once people are part of your business, it is essential that the company culture supports them and doesn’t discourage them. Make sure people aren’t punished for failures, but instead are encouraged to learn lessons and to move forward.  And as Nordfors’ quote points to, make sure your intrapreneurs are held up as good examples, instead of labeled as troublemakers. By supporting your intrapreneurs you will help assure your company keeps moving forward and maintains its competitive edge.

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