Businesses of all sizes can run intrapreneurship programmes. We’ve run them in 100-employee companies, and companies with over 100,000 staff. And the programmes themselves come in all shapes and sizes too.
The basic principles of an intrapreneurship programme remain the same, but how it is rolled out depends on each company’s particular challenges, the goals for the programme and the existing culture in the company.
This article looks at three different methods of rolling out an intrapreneurship programme so you can decide which one is the right for your business.
The Top-down Intrapreneurship Programme
You can think of the top-down approach as “intrapreneurship as strategy”. In other words – a way in which the exec leaders can enable their strategy for the company to be delivered.
The top-down approach to innovation entails the leaders of an organization getting involved in the intrapreneurship process themselves. This works well if they plan to be actively involved in getting feedback from their customers or stakeholders and then use this feedback to create an innovation plan.
One of the pros of this approach is that executives are both confident and empowered to make changes in their organizations. This means once the programme is underway progress can be rapid.
Projects usually tend to be focussed on the leadership team’s main priorities for the financial year and/or aligned to the company’s multi-year strategic goals.
This model of intrapreneurship is there to support strategy, so common challenges can include a tendency to overlook customer feedback that doesn’t support the declared strategy.
As a result, a top-down intrapreneurship programme tends to lead to incremental innovation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing of course. But it helps if you have a clear understanding and expectation of the outcomes at the start.
The Middle-out Intrapreneurship Programme
The middle-out approach can also be thought of as “intrapreneurship as people development”: A way of engaging, retaining and rewarding high performers and potential future leaders of your organisation.
The success of a middle-out intrapreneurship programme is predicated on developing and recruiting talent that can drive the program to success.
Companies that implement this type of innovation strategy will need to devote time and resources to identifying, supporting and mentoring a strong, diverse and capable workforce. They will likely already have an established talent management programme with a range of rewards and opportunities for participants.
The specific innovations that members of this type of programme develop are almost secondary to the goal of developing skills in future leaders.
The overall goals of a middle-out programme are often about developing a culture, mindset and way of working that future leaders can apply repeatedly going forward. And so, it stands to reason that the real rewards for the company could well come several years down the line. This would be when the skills people have learned are reapplied from a leadership position with more influence and budget.
The ideas conceived by these middle-ranked employees are often based on their area of expertise, and their passion and deep knowledge of their business unit. Employees usually have no restrictions about the kind of idea or project they are permitted to run, but it helps if the exec leaders provide some overall themes or goals to set expectations.
Of the three approaches we’re discussing here, innovations from this type of programme are more likely to result in sustaining innovations than incremental or breakthrough innovations.
The Bottom-up Intrapreneurship Programme
The bottom-up approach to intrapreneurship can be thought of as “intrapreneurship as innovation”.
Innovation can come from anywhere and, in our experience, the best innovations very often come from people at the “sharp-end”: those people dealing with a process, product or problem on a day-to-day basis. Bottom-up innovations are born out of individual or small group creativity, rather than top-down management directives or strategy.
Finding people with ideas and the right “can-do” attitude to take part in an intrapreneurship programme is often achieved through a competitive process. Sometimes this is a simple questionnaire. But some companies prefer to ask applicants to submit a 1-minute video of themselves explaining their idea to camera.
Making a video will appeal to people with a certain entrepreneurial mindset – those with a preference for taking rapid action – rather than people who are highly analytical and so (for example) may prefer to write detailed documents. It’s an approach that will not only attract high-quality candidates but also show that you’re looking to do things slightly differently here.
One of the benefits of the bottom-up intrapreneurship approach is that it is often more efficient in terms of time and resources. This is because it relies on individuals with detailed knowledge of a situation to develop innovative solutions quickly. And bringing together a diverse selection of people from different departments – whether they are from the more junior ranks or newer to the company – will tend to lead to more novel innovations.
As a result, the bottom-up intrapreneurship approach is more likely to yield breakthrough (disruptive) innovations compared to middle-out or top-down approaches.
A key challenge of bottom-up programmes is that fledgling intrapreneurs are less likely to have the influence or political acumen to drive potentially disruptive innovations through to completion. It’s vital then that the company leadership team support the innovator to form a strong team that has the necessary authority and personality traits to win over the gatekeepers in the company.
Choosing the Right Path for You
We’ve found that the top-down innovation approach tends to work best in smaller companies where the leadership team are still quite hands-on in the business. Where that’s the case the ideas conceived can be a good mix of both incremental and sustaining innovations.
Following some success and experience, the programme can then be rolled out to other staff.
If you’re interested in this approach, then take a look at the Intrapreneurship Mastery Programme for your leadership team.
The middle-out approach tends to be preferred by larger companies that already have an established talent management / talent identification programme. These companies are typically taking a longer-term view of innovation. This approach works well when you want to evolve the company in new and innovative directions over several years and put leaders in charge who have the skill, passion and drive to grow these ideas into new business units that can benefit the company’s bottom-line for many years to come.
For this approach you might want to consider an ideation workshop to warm people up and develop relationships in the group, before delivering the full Intrapreneurship Mastery Programme a few weeks later.
The bottom-up model of innovation can work for any size of company. It’s the approach to use when you want to harness the skills and creativity of every single one of your employees to come up with innovations that could take your company in new and unexpected directions, and unlock new revenue streams that no one else could conceive.
Here we’d recommend the Intrapreneurship Mastery Programme for the ‘winners’ of the competitive entry stage, but also supplement that with the Leading Innovation and Managing Intrapreneurs course for anyone responsible for managing, funding or providing governance for intrapreneurial projects. This will provide managers with the right skills to help innovators get their ideas to market.
A Final Consideration
It’s perfectly okay to say that your eventual goal is bottom-up “intrapreneurship as innovation”, but as an organisation, you just don’t feel mature enough to enable that to work effectively. In that case, you might want to start with one of the other approaches and run a pilot programme for a year. This would enable you to build some institutional knowledge and demonstrate some success, before scaling to a whole company, bottom-up delivery when you are ready.
Launching an intrapreneurship programme can feel daunting, but no matter which path you choose, the results are worthwhile.
At Intrapreneur Nation, we’ve worked on programme launches using all these approaches, and one thing we can say for sure is that there is no single “right” approach. At some point though, you should choose one and move forward.
And that’s a key element of lean innovation that we’d recommend you try to embrace here: Start small. Try something. Learn. Then iterate fast and enjoy the rewards!
If you’d like to talk through any ideas you have for your intrapreneurship programme with one of our experts, contact us and we’ll get back to you to arrange a chat.