Tycoons on the inside

An intrapreneur (or two) might be just what the C-suite ordered to take your products, services and department from lacklustre to luminous. Here’s why.

Back in the ’60s, the geniuses in the C-suites at 3M — the renowned producers of adhesives, abrasives and all kinds of innovative products, from office supplies to highway safety and healthcare — had an idea. They supported a “bootlegging” policy to foster intrapreneurship (acting as an entrepreneur within a larger organization) in the office, which saw the higher-ups giving their employees the green light to spend part of their nine-to-five working on their own projects.

The story of a couple of the company’s — and history’s — most famous intrapreneurs goes like this: Spencer Silver, a senior scientist, stumbled upon something strange while researching adhesives in his lab. He noticed that one in particular bonded lightly — so light that he could stick the glue on one surface then move it to another with ease. He wasn’t sure what to do with this discovery, so he spread the word at internal seminars for colleagues where he’d tout its merits. The reception wasn’t stellar, but he kept at it. “I became known as Mr. Persistent because I wouldn’t give up,” he’d say.

Five years later, Arthur Fry, a fellow scientist at 3M, had his own conundrum to solve: the bits of paper he used to mark pages in his hymnbooks always fell out. One day during a sermon, his mind wandered and he thought about Silver’s adhesive. “If I could coat it on paper, that would be just the ticket for a better bookmark.” Fry ordered a sample and tried coating the special glue on paper, carefully using it on the edge of one side so he could stick part of the paper into his hymnbook and keep part of it out to quickly find his songs. It worked like a charm. Later he used the paper to scribble messages to his boss, another lightbulb went off and the Post-it Note was born.


Intrapreneurship isn’t a new concept — Silver and Fry’s work is a testament to that — but it’s one that’s been gaining recognition in firms and corporations looking to boost their product offerings, customer service experience and, well, pad their bottom lines. Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist who teaches entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, says that in an intrapreneurial workplace — such as Google, Hootsuite, Telus and Sony, to name a few — employees are encouraged to come up with new ideas and are given time and resources to pursue the idea. “Like the entrepreneur, the intrapreneur takes risks, innovates and aims to create value. This isn’t just about encouraging general creativity. There are concrete — and often unexpected — products, processes and lines of business being initiated.” Since entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs bring similar skill sets and personality traits to the boardroom, smart executives are figuring out ways to keep these employees content so they’ll stay put and exercise their entrepreneurial muscles in-house. “Some companies are developing incubators and accelerators within their companies to help build intrapreneurial ideas and to lure entrepreneurs inside,” she says.


Drumming up interest in your services or new product offerings isn’t an effortless task; there are plenty of issues that are bogging companies down these days: processes often live well past their best-before dates; ideas dry up; organizations become complacent; red tape builds; resources shrink; morale suffers; and the competition gets ravenous. Here’s where intrapreneurs fit in. “These people tend to be self-starters. They have a strategic perspective and they are always looking for ways to improve things. They tend to be passionate and persistent — all really attractive characteristics in future leaders,” says Chris White, author of Changing Your Company From the Inside Out. They’re also able to communicate their ideas, inspire motivation among colleagues and are highly driven in their work, which can boost everyone’s productivity. “Because they feel invested in their initiatives, intrapreneurs exert a lot of energy into getting things done.” Folks in the C-suite and other management would be wise to put these innovators on the fast track for promotions and other opportunities. “Some intrapraneurs are remarkably skilled at timing their initiatives, identifying the right supporters, making a great case and mobilizing resources, such that they can lead from any position in the company and way beyond their job description,” White adds.


“It’s one thing to say you want intrapreneurs, but are you willing to embrace risk, to tolerate some failures and to be questioned on your existing practices? It’s not always sunshine and light-hearted lightbulb moments,” advises Newton. Overseeing these freethinkers can be a pleasure, but it won’t always be a cinch. For example, intrapreneurs might need to be reminded that their first priority is, in fact, the job they were hired for. While it’s easy to get caught up in the adrenaline rush of trying to find the next greatest product or process, bosses need to ensure intrapreneurs are sticking to a time limit (some organizations let employees dedicate 15% of their in-office time to their own projects) and keeping up with their work.

“Managers need to strike the balance between ensuring immediate deliverables are met, while providing the freedom for individuals to create impact beyond their direct scope of responsibility,” says White. They will also have to help intrapreneurs navigate the fine balance between individual achievement and making sure they know their work isn’t about developing products or coming up with “aha moments” simply to benefit their careers.

“They need to be strongly committed to the organization and be team players. After all, if they are that entrepreneurial, what is to stop them from going out to build their own businesses?” says Newton.

It’s also important to mind how these additions will fit into the company’s organizational structure. If it’s necessary for intrapreneurs to work away from their colleagues (so they have access to different resources or for confidentiality purposes), how will the rest of the team react? Causing a feeling of inequality or favouritism in the office won’t bode well for overall morale or boosting anyone else’s productivity.

On the other hand, White says there are several ways for executives to nurture a culture of intrapreneurship, and being crystal clear about what the C-suite is hoping for is a good place to start. “By making your strategic priorities clear, as well as your openness to new ideas and solutions, you catalyze new — and constructively directed — energy.”