Intrapreneurship redefined

Guest contribution by | 10.05.2021

“Healthy growth requires a smattering of intrapreneurs”.    (R. Branson)

As early as 2011, Richard Branson drew attention to the term “intrapreneur”, which he defined in his article “Richard Branson on Intrapreneurs – The business icon talks about empowering employees to break the rules”¹ on NBCNews as “an employee who is given freedom and financial support to create new products, services and systems, who does not have to follow the company’s usual routines or protocols”.

He emphasised how essential intrapreneurs are for the development of a company. Without them, Virgin would not have grown to what it is. They research, develop and drive new projects, new ideas and new directions. In his view, they are responsible for innovation and the creation of new business opportunities. They are not “executives”, but “employees”. In other words, they do not come from the executive suite, but from the middle of the company.

In his article, Branson appealed to CEOs in particular to become aware of the impact of intrapreneurs and to take on a role as facilitators, as chief enabling officers. “What if that CEO’s primary role were to nurture a breed of intrapreneurs who would grow into tomorrow’s entrepreneurs?” He had implemented this at Virgin, giving selected employees the freedom and budget to act as intrapreneurs.

But how up-to-date are Branson’s thoughts? Do they apply to the reality of companies today?

Intrapreneurship today

10 years after the publication of Branson’s article, it is more than ever about the innovative power of companies. Without innovation, there is no survival. The need for innovation and change is therefore unbroken.

Both technological and social innovations are relevant. “The need for technological and social innovation to swing in tandem is more than ever my mantra,” says Thomas Sattelberger.² If companies want to be innovative, they must therefore not only continuously improve or even renew their products, but also their organisation.

The results of the survey that Guido Bosbach conducted in spring 2019 on the future in companies are also clear: just over 200 participants from his network answered his questions and saw the greatest future opportunities for their company both in the development and advancement of products as well as in cooperation and organisational structures.

But who is bringing about these changes?

Most companies today have established labs or similar departments to generate technological innovations. And social innovations are usually implemented through change projects, i.e. company-wide projects with a large planning lead and a top-down approach. Currently, however, these structures and their effectiveness are being questioned.

While Branson institutionalised intrapreneurship in companies, we observe today that employees are not waiting to be selected top-down to act, but that they initiate change on their own, intrinsically.

“In traditional organisational models, it is assumed that the monopoly on organisational, strategic or even cultural design in the company lies with the management as a central control task, i.e. that only they have the power, the right, and of course also the competence to initiate change in the company,” say Sabine and Alexander Kluge. The authors analysed the phenomenon of grassroots movements and document their experiences with such initiatives in their book “Graswurzelinitiativen in Unternehmen: ohne Auftrag – mit Erfolg!” (Grassroots initiatives in companies: without a mandate – with success!), which was published in August 2020.

Employees want to help shape their company

In companies there are “employees who take the initiative out of dissatisfaction with the situation or the simple realisation that things cannot go on like this” (Sabine and Alexander Kluge). In Guido Bosbach’s survey, too, about 70% of the participants said they were prepared to tackle the changes themselves, even without a mandate and without a budget.

Sabine and Alexander Kluge state that megatrends such as democratisation in companies and digitalisation are the reason for this development, as are practical points:

  • Management does not recognise the problems because it is far away from customers, the market and employees. They, on the other hand, experience the customers, the market and the colleagues directly and on a daily basis. They are close to the problems.
  • And there are problems for which the management does not offer a solution, for example because it is stuck in old structures.

This leads to grassroots movements “being built by people with a defined concern to bring about systemic change” (Sabine and Alexander Kluge).

Intrapreneurship is an attitude

The participants in Guido Bosbach’s survey came from different hierarchical levels. The authors Sabine and Alexander Kluge also observe initiatives that are launched by employees with or without a management mandate. Profession or qualification do not play a role either. Intrapreneurship is therefore not bound to specific functions or positions in companies. Intrapreneurship is shaped by the people themselves.

Intrapreneurs have an attitude that can be adopted by everyone in the company. This attitude can be characterised with 5 main features. Intrapreneurs have

  • a strong urge for innovation,
  • the intention to bring about something positive for their company with their work,
  • a strong desire for self-determination and freedom,
  • a strong self-confidence for the ongoing development of their own personality, and
  • the desire to create something new with like-minded people.

Intrapreneurs are also rebels to a certain extent, because they start their actions without approval and under the radar. But they act in the interest of the company. They work for the greater good, they want to advance the greater good. For example, they work for better cooperation and culture. In their book, the authors Sabine and Alexander Kluge report on such initiatives and show how much the initiators are connected to their company, also emotionally.

Intrapreneurs are therefore responsible for innovation. Because they come from the middle of the company, they know what changes are necessary and also how and with whom they can implement them. They are so intrinsically motivated that they are prepared, at least in the beginning, to act without a mandate and unnoticed, and not infrequently use their private resources first, such as their free time.

Promoting intrapreneurship

“How to unleash the power of intrapreneurs?” Richard Branson answers this question: “The key is to enable them to pursue their vision.” Guido Bosbach also advises management to give employees more freedom and to ensure more involvement in decision-making through dialogue and participation.

In an online talk, Martina Baehr and I discussed the role of intrapreneurs with over 40 participants and found that they are very aware of their self-efficacy. They definitely see the possibilities to act in their company, building on their own qualities and skills.

To be effective, intrapreneurs need first and foremost:

  • a strong self with a lot of stamina, initiative and motivation,
  • strong skills such as cooperation and persuasion,
  • a strong network of companions such as peers and sponsors.

So they need the opportunities to develop themselves, to acquire or deepen skills and to build on their strengths. And they need the opportunities to network to find like-minded people and fellow campaigners, to exchange and validate their ideas.

Conclusion

As early as 2011, Richard Branson highlighted the role that intrapreneurs play in the development of companies, because they ensure their innovative strength. Today, 10 years later, this role is more relevant than ever: technical and social innovations often emerge from the middle and not top-down. Employees who want to help shape things have the power to change their company. These intrapreneurs are intrinsically motivated, connected to the company, have the knowledge about the problems that need to be solved and have a strong self-efficacy. They need the opportunities for self-development and networking to develop their potential.

Hinweise (partly in German):

[1] Richard Branson on Intrapreneurs
[2] Sabine und Alexander Kluge: Graswurzelinitiativen in Unternehmen: Ohne Auftrag – mit Erfolg!, erschienen im Franz Vahlen Verlag
[3] Die Zukunft des Unternehmens. KEIN Thema fürs Management?!

Guénola Langenberg

Guénola Langenberg

Guénola Langenberg is an Agile Coach and Mental Coach. She worked for many years as a programme and process manager for an international automotive supplier. She supports people and organisations in acting in an agile, appreciative and team-strengthening way. In her experience, the most successful teams are those that live effectiveness, diversity, community and self-determination. Guénola Langenberg is a member of the Gesellschaft für Projektmanagement e.V. (Association for Project Management) and the Fachverband Gewaltfreie Kommunikation e.V. (Association for Nonviolent Communication).