A five-part series about understanding and motivating your innovative employees
Skunks are highly intelligent animals that mostly live in the wild, but some people keep them as pets. Known for high levels of curiosity, they often find themselves stuck inside chairs and household appliances.
Skunks are also widely known for spraying an offensive-smelling liquid on anyone who threatens them, and it’s notoriously difficult to get rid of the smell without bathing in various chemical concoctions. You can, of course, opt to forego such treatments, in which case you will carry the noxious odour with you for up to three weeks. This works great if you’re a hermit, but not so great if you want to interact with others.
What does all of that have to do with intrapreneurs? Well, intrapreneurs are a lot like skunks: Intelligent, curious, always finding new things to explore – and deeply offensive to those who value predictability, rules, and the status quo.
Lockheed Martin first coined the term ‘Skunk Works’ during the Second World War when designing a new fighter jet. Since then, the term has become widely used in business and technical fields to describe a group that is given a high degree of autonomy, unfettered by bureaucratic rules that govern the rest of the organization. In other words: Intrapreneurs.
You can’t afford not to innovate if you want to remain relevant and resilient through turbulent times – which is pretty much all the time these days. The challenge for organizations, though, is that while innovators are off dreaming up new ways to serve customers and disrupt the competition, you still have a business to run. You can’t just abandon your bread and butter revenues for untested and unproven ideas. The trouble is, if you don’t invest in developing new ideas, you will almost certainly find yourself sidelined and irrelevant at some point. Your market share will be supplanted by innovative upstarts who don’t have the complication of having to keep an existing business running. So how do you balance the challenge of maintaining current products and services while at the same time encouraging and embracing new ideas?
While creating innovative cultures where intrapreneurs blossom can involve major expenditures and culture change, that’s not always true. In fact, you can start your innovation journey almost immediately by providing three key supports to intrapreneurs: Space, Time, and Freedom.
Research shows that the best ideas come when environments are conducive to creativity. Cubicles are not those kinds of environments. Neither are offices where you can shut out the world but aren’t inspired by a team of like-minded individuals who excitedly build on each other’s ideas. Sure, you might need to give up an existing boardroom, meeting hall, or classroom to create an innovation space, but the resulting ideas and energy will more than make up for the fact your admin team has to walk further down the hall to have a meeting.
Ideas need time to incubate, and intrapreneurs need dedicated time to create. When you’re stuck in routine tasks or ever-increasing workloads, your mind doesn’t have time to ruminate, brainstorm, and develop breakthrough ideas. As a lifelong intrapreneur, I was rarely short on ideas, but almost always short on time to think them through or check perception with others. One day per week of dedicated time in your organization’s innovation space can immediately ramp up intrapreneurs’ idea generation and excitement. They’ll gladly do their regular job the other four days of the week when they know they’ve got one full day to let their creativity run wild.
Intrapreneurs need the mental freedom to reflect, create, and develop solid business plans for their ideas. They can’t do any of those things if they’re bound by the same bureaucratic rules as the rest of the organization. I’m not advocating for unfettered freedom from accountability – thoughtful innovation programs have clearly defined evaluation milestones. I am advocating for loosened bureaucratic restrictions, willingness to tolerate risk, and understanding that failure is a critical part of the innovation process. Not every idea will be good, and not every good idea will be viable. But providing freedom from the usual bureaucracy will almost assuredly help you build a pipeline of innovative ideas, some of which will be revolutionary in your industry.
In the absence of Space, Time, and Freedom, your intrapreneurs will feel stifled and stuck, somewhat like a curious skunk caught in a chair. While they won’t be spraying anyone with a noxious substance, their motivation will be contaminated by the organization’s failure to prioritize innovation. It will cost you next to nothing to provide your intrapreneurs with Space, Time and Freedom, and you will be rewarded with the sweet smell of innovation success.
Check back soon for Part 4 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs: Chance Taking.
To read Part 1 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs, click here.
To read Part 2 of The ABCs of Engaging Intrapreneurs, click here.