Workplace Trends: The Myth of the Intrapreneur

Does Startup Innovation Have a Place in Corporate America?

Small businesses and startups take risks.  They adapt, evolve, and are flexible to different circumstances, environment, and industries.  They are nimble and offer innovation, a different point of view.  These entrepreneurs often times lay it all on the line risking their lives and financial future in order to save or change the world.  These wins offer a market shakeup and big payday.  With intrapreneurs that is not the case.

An entrepreneur is defined as an enterprising business professional.  They build capital through risk and initiative leveraging their financial future in exchange for great financial reward.  Being an entrepreneur is a lot like playing black jack.  These innovators and disruptors are all in playing against the dealer who when tied always wins.

I see a new trend among workplaces developing to help drive that innovation in the stagnate and safe corporate workplace.  It’s called the intrapreneur.  This person innovates without the risk often in the safe confines of the corporate throws and hierarchal and political environment that is the world of work. Except that I believe they don’t.  An intraprenuer is more a pipe dream really.  The myth of the intraprenuer is like a modern day version of Animal Farm.  It’s filled with corruption, greed, and indifference.

The corporate model is broken.  Fifty percent of employees are unhappy at work.  And 1 in 4 professionals believe they are living up to their creative potential.  And yet the startup community is booming.  Entreprenuerial is at its highest point as people take the greatest risk of their professional lives working like dogs but because they have the control they are happier, more creative, and engaged than ever.  My friend Perri Gorman feels that way.  She moved from New York to San Francisco to launch her start up leaving her cushy finance headhunting job to live the dream, and she believes she’s a better person for it.  I think she is too.

Intrapreneur or Internal Entrepreneur?

The concept behind an intrapreneur is one that I can get behind.  Established companies are struggling to innovate and looking for ways to up their game especially in this global business space.  Except that intrapreneur’s are insolated and often play the game without risk.  Meaning that they don’t have any financial skin in the game.  They are not an internal entrepreneur.  They are collecting their weekly paycheck just like every other red blooded corporate guy or gal doing the same old thing.  There’s no direct access to risk, reward, passion, and failure.

I believe that sometimes fear is the greatest motivator.  Fear of being homeless.  Fear of being broke.  The fear of being laughed at and the fear of failure.  In corporate intrarpreneur programs, they don’t have this risk.  And they sure as hell aren’t leveraging their soul to make their dreams the reality.  There have no real vested skin in the game.

Intrapreneurial Programs Conflict with the Corporate Conference Call Marathon

The real failure of corporate innovation isn’t a formal intrapreneurial program.  These organizations and its leaders wouldn’t know if innovation slapped them in the face.  The real innovation is happening in the field by middle manager and front line employees.  They see a problem and offer a solution.  Except no one is listening because they’re too busy on their corporate conference call marathon.  Or if they are listening, they spend weeks and months debating, discussing, and evaluating risk.  Where real innovation happens in on the fly.  Following your gut and making a change.  This is the reason that corporate intrapreneurial programs will never be successful at least in mainstream corporate America.

Do you know a company who innovates and supports a intrapreneur mindset?  I’d love to hear about it by leaving a comment below.  

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Perri Gorman

Perri Blake Gorman is the CEO / Founder of archive.ly, a people research platform for recruiters and the co-founder of Unroll.Me, the popular email unsubscribe service. Prior to getting into tech, she did retained executive search for over 13 years on Wall Street.

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Comments

  1. AvatarMary Wright says

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and, respectfully, disagree.

    A real intrapreneur has much skin in the game. An intrapreneur risks his or her cushy job and regular paycheck by taking on projects that no one else will. It takes courage.

    In a start up, a leader and team share vision and enthusiasm. Inside a corporation, however, there are often detractors and cynics who sow the seeds of doubt and who rain all over the intrapreneur’s vision and enthusiasm. If the idea fails, cynics are proved right, and are emboldened to spread cynicism toward new ideas. (This is, IMHO, why R&D used to be kept separate from the rest of the company.)

    On the other hand, I am in complete agreement and highly recommend innovation “on the fly.” But are innovation and intrapreneurism interchangeable or mutually exclusive terms?

    • Jessica Miller-MerrellJessica Miller-Merrell says

      Hi Mary,

      You are absolutely okay to disagree. I do think if they want innovation to happen at a corporation they need to separate it with a incubator or something where folks who are innovative aren’t penalized.

      I’m using my own example for reference here. I was labeled a problem child and trouble maker at my organization because I was trying to be innovative. I didn’t have the patience or the corporate clout to afford to wait. Which is why I choose to go out on my own and work for myself where I could be nimble and flexible. It’s not a strategy for everyone but I do believe that this is a problem that companies need to address for innovation to happen at their organization.

      Thanks for the comment.

      JMM

  2. AvatarHenry Motyka says

    This may be true, but when I worked for Coopers & Lybrand, which turned into PricewaterhouseCoopers, I was given almost complete freedom to run my department the way I wanted, so I did, and completely restructured the department. Working there was almost like having no boss. Unlike most of the rest of corporate America, most of the big 4 is probably still like that. I have to use old phrases but it really was take the ball and run with it. I happened to be one of the ones that did. Unfortunately, I may never find another job like that again.

  3. AvatarAaron Eden says

    I agree with the items you’ve outlined regarding the amount of risk that an entrepreneur takes on vs. what an intrapreneur will take on.

    The key item that I have concern with is your belief that “Being an entrepreneur is a lot like playing black jack. These innovators and disruptors are all in playing against the dealer who when tied always wins.”

    While there are situations where this could be true. Most entrepreneurs systematically reduce the risk in their new business idea as quickly as possible (just as an intrapreneur should). Many of them take these steps while they are still within the confines of a cushy job.

    For more context: you should check out the post I just published about how HR can be turbo-charged with this type of thinking. http://aaroneden.com/2013/02/08/turbo-charge-enterprise-human-resources-with-lean-startup/

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