Champions of internal innovation – what are their strategies?

This is the third in a series of blog posts that take a closer look at the champions who bring innovative methods, like a Book Sprint, into their organisations. The experts Christian Friedl, Martina Pumpat and Andreas Eckhardt helped us understand the characteristics commonly found among intrapreneurs (summarized in the previous blog post). For this blog post, they gave us insights into the strategies that intrapreneurs apply to overcome challenges, and how organisations can support their activities.

Challenges accepted

Intrapreneurs, that is to say employees with an entrepreneurial mindset, encounter many obstacles to implementing their ideas. Many work in middle management positions with short-term target agreements and high workloads. Their organisations tend to have low tolerance for trial and error and lack a broader vision. These individuals struggle to push innovation projects through slow and risk averse decision-making processes and to justify their relevance and value within the logic of quarterly figures. It is also often not possible to determine the outcome, effects and return on investment of such projects in advance. 

Frustration is a huge issue, be it due to inefficient structures, envious colleagues or the lack of time available because they have to do the innovation projects alongside everyday business. There is not much recognition for their efforts. Failure can come with severe consequences for them – job loss in the worst case. (Christian Friedl).

Despite the obstacles, the corporate context offers some benefits, too. Intrapreneurs can implement ideas without jeopardizing their own assets, making use of in-house resources, infrastructure, networks and know-how. They tend to use what they learn along the way for self-development. Doing something meaningful, taking responsibility, optimising workflows, and moving the organisation forward are drivers for intrapreneurs, even more so than career moves or high salaries.

A group of 8 people during the Precarity Lab Book Sprint around a large conference table - partly seated parly standing - exchanging perspectives and discussion ideas

Fig. 1: A group of people exchanging perspectives and discussing ideas during Precarity Lab Book Sprint

Strategies to overcome the challenges

To confront the challenges, intrapreneurs typically employ some common strategies, including networking, finding sponsors, workarounds, piloting and skills-enhancement.

Networking for the cause

Intrapreneurs typically have effective interpersonal and negotiation skills and know how to build both internal and external networks. They cultivate trusting relationships in order to navigate corporate politics, overcome bureaucratic roadblocks and mobilise resources.

It’s kind of an underground network. They know who to get the right information, support and resources from, who they should tell about an idea and who they reveal it to later, who is solution-oriented and who is better avoided because they may open up new problems. This network is cross-functional and extends across the various departments of the company and well beyond. (Martina Pumpat)

Getting support from sponsors

Intrapreneurs also seek out sponsors, who have influence and credibility in the company. Sponsors can act as ambassadors for the projects and help to create pathways, allocate resources and communicate to management. Sponsors might be established people who are looking for young aspiring co-workers to mentor and support.

Finding workarounds

Instead of confronting the obstacles to achieving their goals, champions find workarounds.  Sometimes this means deviating from organisational regulations, approved methods and technologies.

We have found in our studies that the people we call innovation champions tend to use resources that have not, so to speak, been approved. None of them have any intention of causing harm to the organisation, rather they are driven by obstacles that they want to overcome. In the IT area there is even a black market for workarounds, where peers exchange ideas, support each other and where they also get recognition from other people who they consider to be experts (Andreas Eckhardt).

Piloting for proof

Although intrapreneurs sometimes move on the fringes of organisational regulations, they assess and manage risk for their innovation projects. They may use rapid prototyping, user tests, frequent iterations and constant adjusting to quickly achieve sustainable results. 

They don’t ask for permission, they ask for forgiveness later. When they did a pilot or a test or a hidden experiment or something like that and then it’s working out, then they can say, we now have the proof that it’s working, so let’s move on (Martina Pumpat).

Keeping a flexible mindset

With a flexible mindset intrapreneurs can be highly adaptable in dynamic and complex work environments. They may quickly change course of action and pivot strategically. Instead of specializing in individual fields, they navigate between them while keeping a comprehensive overview. They learn in a systematic way from their experience and are seeking continuous improvement. 

What organisations can do to support intrapreneurs

Prof. Lisa Nakamura sitting on a desk in front of a brainstorming wall during Precarity Lab Book Sprint with an attentive look

Fig.: 2: Prof. Lisa Nakamura in front of a brainstorming wall during the Precarity Lab Book Sprint

Organisations increasingly understand that for innovation to happen intrapreneurs need special attention and support. They play a key role in generating new ideas and business opportunities. However, due to the challenges and risks they face and the workarounds they employ, intrapreneurs tend to stay less visible and choose wisely who they let in on their ideas and projects. Therefore, organisations need to build a work culture that encourages employees to take entrepreneurial action and to make use of innovative methods – a work culture that builds on collaboration, low hierarchies, meaningful engagement, and space for experimentation.

I would advise companies that employee of the month is not the one who has the best quarterly figures, but the one who has done the biggest fuckup but has learned the most from it. Or the one who has developed something new. This courage should be rewarded. And it is important that they get flexibility, autonomy, personal responsibility, their own budget, their own resources and recognition for their efforts.(Christian Friedl) 

Understanding the strategies of champions adopting new methods

These are the strategies we have learned from the experts. Are these similar to the ones you have employed when adopting other kinds of new methods?

In a short survey and the Champions for innovative methods blog post series we take a step towards understanding the challenges and strategies for adopting innovative methods.

For anyone who identifies as innovators, intrapreneurs and champions, please participate in the survey!

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