When we think of the word ‘innovator’, perhaps we envisage the lone wolf, sitting alone in a spectacularly modern apartment on their Fitball, or laptop and notes spread out on a table at the local café. Perhaps we think of a spectacle-adorned academic type from an old sepia image. What we seldom think about, however, is the employee who routinely wakes to their alarm, heads to work, and creates goods and services for someone else’s company.
While the entrepreneur is usually the subject of our innovation stories, it is, in fact, the intrapreneur, or internal entrepreneur, who is responsible for a staggering 70 per cent of society’s most transformative innovations, according to Strategy, Growth and Transformation expert, Kaihan Krippendorff. Kaihan is a celebrated keynote speaker in business strategy and author of five books aimed at helping businesses thrive in the competitive, fast-paced digital age.
“Almost all the stories we tell of innovation are of the entrepreneur. And the reason that we tell those stories is not that it’s the truth, but because it’s an easier story to tell; it’s more engaging, it fits the hero’s journey story,” he said.
But it’s time to tell the stories of those unsung heroes and celebrate the weird, strange and crazy ideas that we eventually can’t live without. In a business setting, this is essential to encouraging internal entrepreneurs to step up and share their thoughts. By talking about ideas with curiosity and respect, no matter their surface value, we create a safe environment for future-thinking individuals to flourish.
“I think that when we don’t tell stories of the weird, we remove some of the possibility and the naturalness of it… It always feels better to go to the past than the future. One key to getting someone to embrace the future is to make the future look like the past,” said Kaihan.
“The stories we tell inform us of what’s possible, and we very much live into the stories we’ve heard…so if people feel they are fulfilling a story that they heard before, it becomes self-reinforcing.”
By sharing stories of the workplace innovator, the employee who sees things differently and comes up with seemingly wild and wacky solutions, we empower others to similarly think outside the box and join the intrapreneur revolution.
As Kaihan notes, without employees flexing their creative muscle, we would not have companies such as Google, Salesforce or Alibaba. We would not have the internet as it stands at all, and our phones would still be tethered to the wall. Without internal innovators having the freedom and confidence to pursue their ideas, ultimately, society suffers.
So, how can organisations encourage innovation? Kaihan notes that there are three key factors, each of which falls under the control of leadership. An open, flexible and willing leadership will have the insights to tweak the processes to create an overarching supportive environment for internal entrepreneurs.
Firstly, there is the talent – a company looking to future-proof through innovation and encouraging new ideas needs to hire the right people. These are the CV’s that scream ‘entrepreneur’ but with a few key differences.
“They look like entrepreneurs in that they’re innovative, they understand the market and are proactive, but beyond that, they also enjoy the politics, they get intrinsic value from innovating and are less driven by the money,” Kaihan said.
This talent will also make it clear not only what projects they have worked on, but the impact of the outcomes. Did they create a new product that made lives easier? Did they contribute to higher workplace morale, or did their new idea enhance productivity in a positive environment?
The second factor to encouraging internal entrepreneurs is the structures within the business, including resources. For a new idea to fly, the innovator needs time, space and usually some funding to make it happen. Can the team work across multiple sections of the organisation? Is there flexibility within their role? Is the organisation prepared to take a risk?
Structural constraints lead into the third factor – culture. If you have the right people in place and the structures to support them, you also need a culture of understanding, open-mindedness and awareness to bring forth the best possible outcomes.
Once these factors are taken into consideration, there is one more roadblock that internal entrepreneurs often face – company strategy. Kaihan has found from his research that it is company strategy that often prevents innovations from becoming successful within an organisation, regardless of all other factors being equal. He explains it this way; if the customer does not embrace a new product, the savvy business would listen to the customer and find out why the product missed the mark. However, an innovator will often blame the their company if their idea or product is rejected.
“What I found is that these internal innovators take the same kind of customer-centric approach to their company. It’s like their company is another customer, and they have that internal sensibility to know what they want.”
Understanding your company’s business model is extremely helpful in knowing what is needed, as otherwise, the innovator runs the risk of encountering ‘value blockers’. “By finding out where the points of conflict are with your current company’s business model, and then just going back and re-engineering the idea a little bit, you can remove this conflict and really leverage the unique aspects of your current company through the innovation.”
“It is all about encouraging innovative thinking, allowing for risk-taking, encouraging productivity and a strong customer market awareness… and it is not just knowing what to do, it’s being willing to make the changes.”