The Myth of the Intrapreneur

Innovation is a company-wide endeavor, supported from top to bottom by systems, structures and a culture that nurtures transformative ideas.

The Post-it note. Facebook’s “like” button. The Sony PlayStation. These products are all held up as legendary examples of the power of intrapreneurship – entrepreneurial creativity and innovation within large, established organizations.

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Innovation must be recognized as a permanent function of a successful company.

Since the term was coined in the 1980s, intrapreneurship has been sold to companies as a catchall solution for fostering innovation. It’s been promoted to workers as a way to capture the creativity and excitement of entrepreneurship but with more resources and less risk.

Intrapreneurs are supposed to be rebels, breaking the rules and swimming against the corporate tide. While this vision of the intrapreneurial maverick is certainly alluring, in truth it’s an ineffective way to drive innovation. After more than 20 years of researching innovation in large companies, it’s clear to me that the successful intrapreneur is often more myth than reality.

A permanent necessity 

The experience of the typical intrapreneur looks less like Spencer Silver’s, who developed the Post-it note while at 3M, and more like Steven Sasson’s, the engineer at Kodak who invented the portable digital camera. As it is now well-known, instead of propelling Kodak into the future, the digital camera became a massive missed opportunity.

Sasson’s example demonstrates that no single individual can take a game-changing innovation all the way from idea to reality. Innovation has to be a company-wide endeavor, supported from top to bottom by systems, structures and a company culture that nurtures transformative ideas and products.

To start, innovation must be recognized as a permanent function of a successful company, just like accounting, operations, sales and finance.

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People are a company’s most cherished and important innovation asset.

If companies want to be able to consistently innovate, they need dedicated innovation professionals to carry out the functions of discovery, development, incubation, acceleration and scaling.

But this innovation division can’t be siloed off from the rest of the business. Company incubators and innovation labs that are isolated from the rest of the organization tend to have limited success, because they are disconnected from a larger system.

Game-changing innovations require a holistic approach across the organization.

From innovative jobs to innovative careers

Over the past two decades, my colleagues and I have researched innovation through site visits and more than 600 interviews at Fortune 100 companies.

Our research shows that to develop, incubate and scale innovation, organizations need a system that includes leadership and a culture willing to commit system-wide resources to innovation efforts. An inclusive organizational structure is also required.

All the successful companies we surveyed had a desire to create a structure that institutionalized innovation and developed innovation professionals beyond offering them a one-off or one-time innovation job.

Companies need to create innovation careers rather than just innovation jobs. Our research supports the idea that people are a company’s most cherished and important innovation asset.

The intrapreneurship concept understands this but focuses its hopes on a genius who can swoop in to save the day. Instead, we must start thinking of innovation as a capacity that needs organization-wide support.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

Andrew Corbett is the Paul T. Babson Chair of Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College and an instructor at Babson Executive Education.

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