What is intrapreneurship?

Intrapreneurship: Coined for 36 years, Practiced for Millennia

The concept of entrepreneurship is likely familiar to many of us. Entrepreneurs are pioneers and innovators who set out to make something new by developing their own business ventures.

What, then, is intrapreneurship? Originally coined by BGI president and co-founder Gifford Pinchot in 1978, an intrapreneur is defined as a person within an existing organization who takes direct responsibility for turning an idea into a profitable finished product through assertive risk-taking and innovation. The word is still relatively new, though the concept has been around for some time, and it is one of the main disciplines we teach at BGI.

Intrapreneurship is to existing businesses what entrepreneurship is to the larger market. Just as an entrepreneur creates an enterprise in the marketplace, an intrapreneur creates enterprises within an organization by driving innovation.

As Harvard Business Review contributors Vijay Govindarajan and Jatin Desai assert, “Intrapreneurs can transform an organization more quickly and effectively than others because they are self‐motivated freethinkers, masters at navigating around bureaucratic and political inertia.”

BGI alumna Betsy Blaisdell provides a prime example of intrapreneurship in action. As head of environmental stewardship for Timberland, Betsy works daily to improve the company’s environmental footprint, while keeping the company’s broader financial goals in mind.

Intrapreneurs are out-of-the-box thinkers and idea generators, and, interestingly, they are not necessarily the first to speak up. David K. Williams explains in Forbes, “Intrapreneurs exhibit the traits of confidence and humility—not the maverick behavior of corporate hotshots.” This is an important distinction to draw. Intrapreneurs seek to create intentional change for a reason, not impulsive change for the sake of change itself.

HBR outlines six related traits common to successful intrapreneurs:

  1. Money is not the measurement – The ability to influence is more motivating than reward.
  2. Strategic scanning – Intrapreneurs are always looking at what’s next.
  3. Greenhousing – Ideas are kept contemplated internally as they develop.
  4. Visual thinking – Brainstorming, mind mapping and design thinking are important.
  5. Pivoting – Intrapreneurs can make significant shifts from current direction.
  6. Authenticity and integrity – Intrapreneurs strike balance between confidence and humility.

Intrapreneurs in the Workplace

To many organizations, intrapreneurs are clear assets. In fact, entrepreneur.com reports that 58 percent of managers are willing to support innovative employees. Still, many leaders fail to encourage intrapreneurs for fear that they will leave to start their own enterprises or to join competitors. At the same time, more than two-thirds of workers feel they cannot pursue new ideas in current roles as they already have too many responsibilities and do not want to be punished for going beyond their job duties.

The truth is, intrapreneurship is beneficial to organizations and workers alike. First, 70 percent of entrepreneurs say they left previous corporate roles because they felt stifled. So, providing a process for these individuals to pitch ideas can help retain them, contrary to what many managers expect.

What’s perhaps more important, though, is that innovation is necessary if an organization wants to grow or stay competitive. As David Armano, executive VP, Global Innovation & Integration at Edelman, explains, “In a world filled with fast-moving change, a large organization that becomes complacent and loses sight of the benefits of having an entrepreneurial streak built into their massive global systems can find themselves disrupted in short order.”

Intrapreneurs are just as important to long-term business success as they are to transforming companies to contribute to the common good, as we teach at BGI. During their second year, students in our MBA in Sustainable Systems program engage in a year-long Action Learning Practicum course. They have the option of choosing an Organizational Leadership concentration, which allows them to learn how to effect change internally and to design a project with an existing organization.

Employees who are able to flex their creative muscles also feel greater job satisfaction, and their energy is contagious, which can benefit an entire team.

The key is for an intrapreneur to embrace his or her organization’s culture and gain respect from peers while receiving support from leadership. If those elements are aligned, there’s no telling how far an intrapreneur can take your company.

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