In January, we introduced our 2023 Strategic Agenda based on in-depth conversations with top CSOs in our Outthinker Strategy Network. We will be expanding on one of these trends every week with the intention of supporting your organization’s strategy for the next year and beyond. This is our sixth installment.
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By Kaihan Krippendorff and Cori Dombroski, Outthinker’s Director of Marketing & Member Experience
There is an ongoing myth about what innovators look and act like. It has been perpetuated by the entrepreneurs we hear about and see in the news. When you ask AI chat bot ChatGPT “who are the most famous innovators alive today,” it calls up familiar names: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and James Dyson. Fortunately, Sheryl Sandberg and Satya Nadella add some diversity to the list.
The people listed are company founders, entrepreneurs who have struck out to create something of their own. Of course, they are all well-deserving of our respect and recognition, but there is another type of innovator that rarely gets mentioned—one that is much more prevalent, more diverse, and even more likely to change the world: the intrapreneur.
Intrapreneurs are innovators who work inside of large companies. They are inventors, founders, and leaders who may not get as much credit, but who are just as responsible for the innovations that have a major impact on our lives. In fact, intrapreneurs have been responsible for more inventions than entrepreneurs — 70% of the world’s 30 most transformative innovations over the past 30 years were developed by intrapreneurs.
Part of our work at Outthinker has been to study intrapreneurs through the years. We’ve conducted hundreds of interviews to find out what makes them successful and what makes them different from entrepreneurs. Through this research, we’ve found that there are five common misconceptions about intrapreneurs that most people hold and that simply aren’t true:
1. They are just entrepreneurs working inside a large company
While intrapreneurs share the three critical attributes that distinguish traditional entrepreneurs (innovativeness, market and competitive awareness, and proactivity), they also have a few additional qualities that set them apart. These are taking calculated risks, political acumen, and intrinsic motivation. We’ll further discuss these three attributes later in this post.
Additionally, intrapreneurs draw on some other advantages that give them an edge over entrepreneurs:
- They have scale that entrepreneurs cannot easily match
- They can access multiple capabilities under their company’s roof
- They can take advantage of the resources their company has to invest
- They can diversify risk by making multiple bets, rather than committing to one idea
2. They are all men in black turtlenecks
The list of founders and entrepreneurs is dominated by images of white men. In recent years, we have been delighted to see more women and people of color being acknowledged in such lists. But if you really want to celebrate diversity in your company, seek out and empower the intrapreneurs. There are many innovators and creators worth recognizing who come from all different backgrounds.
This week, we honor International Women’s Day and think of women like Jean Feiwel, an employee at Macmillan Publishers who launched Fierce Reads, a crowd-sourced platform to help connect undiscovered romance and young adult writers with their audience.
There’s Carmen Medina, who was an analyst at the CIA who, post 9/11, convinced federal agencies to establish a coordinated cross-agency wiki to share information.
And Yoky Matsuoka who, while VP of Technology at Nest, developed the adaptive component that helps your thermostat learn and recall your preferred temperature settings. When you look for intrapreneurs, you’ll find hundreds of impressive stories like these and, most likely, a much more diverse group of innovators than you’re used to seeing.
3. They are wild risk takers
On average, entrepreneurs have a higher risk tolerance. Internal innovators, on the other hand, think differently. They appear to take high-risk gambles, but actually they are very deliberate about when and how they do it. They excel at calculating risk then making thoughtful bets.
Take Feiwel, for example. She loved her company and believed more of the world could benefit from access to the high-quality editing process of professional publishing. She had an idea for a platform of self-published authors who would share their books with readers before the books were published to help the author perfect their manuscript.
She didn’t take the wild risk of quitting her job to start a new company. Instead, she sent an email out to colleagues at Macmillan and said, “If you’re interested, let’s have lunch and talk about it over pizza.” She thought if seven people showed up, she would pursue sharing her idea with leadership. If fewer did, she wouldn’t. And about 30 people showed up and encouraged her to launch the idea inside the company.
4. They stay away from workplace politics
Entrepreneurs have the luxury of shopping their ideas to multiple investors before getting funding. If they upset someone or say the wrong thing, they’ll have another chance to pitch the next potential investor. Intrapreneurs have only one option to impress—their employer. Winning support depends on navigating a complex network of internal stakeholders, and our research shows that successful intrapreneurs actually enjoy this process.
To convince a network of federal agencies to work together, Medina needed to align her ideas with her company’s priorities, showing them how the overall organization would improve by implementing a coordinated method of communication. In her book Rebels at Work, she discusses how the best intrapreneurs embrace opposition and accept their suggestions accordingly. They remain focused and give colleagues time to consider their ideas.
5. They are money-motivated
Great internal innovators are driven by passion. Financial success can often be a reward for successful innovation, but intrapreneurs generally have a higher purpose in mind. For example, Matsuoka says, “I pursued my career in Silicon Valley because I wanted to build solutions to empower people to live the life of their dreams and be the best versions of themselves. It is important to me that my contributions to society and to tech are unique and meaningful.”
Intrinsic motivation powers intrapreneurs to proactively pursue their ideas, in spite of countless barriers they may come across in their organizations.
Intrapreneurs are often misunderstood and overlooked, yet they are responsible for a significant portion of the world’s most transformative innovations. Contrary to common misconceptions, intrapreneurs are not exactly the same as entrepreneurs; they are deliberate risk-takers with strong political skills and intrinsic motivation. Intrapreneurs come from diverse backgrounds; they’re not only the white guys we see in the news, and they are driven by a higher purpose other than financial reward. By recognizing and empowering intrapreneurs, companies can unlock a wealth of innovation potential and create a more diverse and inclusive culture.