This month, I attended the flagship Intrapreneurship Conference in Munich, a three-day event where 150 people from 23 countries gathered to learn lessons from innovators who work in large global companies, innovation think tanks and consulting. It was a great meeting place for people who are driving innovation from within.

As both a presenter and attendee, I had the chance to see the intrapreneurship work being done around the world today from a few different angles.

On one side, there is an army of smart, dedicated soldiers working to derive value from innovation activities. On another are large, multinational organizations that know they need to do things differently, but the inertia is so great that it’s difficult to make meaningful change.

How many aircraft carriers can pull off a three-point turn in the middle of a voyage because the target has changed? Not many.

Let’s look at a few lessons I took away from the Intrapreneurship Conference.

Lesson #1 – There is lots of desire, but limited ability, to move organizations.

Inside every large company are people who see opportunities for change, improvement and advancement. These people have the company’s best interests in mind and truly want to make things better. They put plans together, rally a team, and pitch the idea internally.

At a micro level, some of these initiatives are successful, ideas get implemented and improvements happen. These are not insignificant, but they are not moving the ship. But, at a macro level, the organization has not changed. Funding models are the same, procurement and legal still emphasize risk-avoidance, and there is no burning platform at the leadership level to induce meaningful shifts in direction.

Lesson #2 – Innovation is successful at the edges, not in the middle.

Large companies have spent many years building processes and teams to mitigate change. These are important measures that allow for long-term strategic planning and give senior leaders and shareholders confidence that the organization is on the right path. Teams are built at the centre of the company to secure this plan and execute on it, and they are funded and rewarded for staying on track no matter what.

Sometimes, the company sets up internal innovation labs and teams, and funds them to do projects, but they are isolated from where the real change happens. They are led by one person and one department, still central to the organization. They are not disrupting, but doing. All of this is well-intentioned, but it doesn’t work.

What works is when the company moves strategic groups to the edges of the organization, and gives them limited resources and lots of space. They are pointed in the right direction and left alone to create and deliver. They have visibility into the company’s big problems and are given freedom to work across the organization and at the senior level. These are internal startups who have the trust of senior people and an eye on the things they care about. These teams succeed because they are not at the core; they operate on the edges.

Lesson #3 – It’s riskier to do nothing than to try something and fail.

Large companies do not incent and reward failure. During my time as an intrapreneur, I was told that going under or over a budget were equally bad and to stay on budget no matter what, even though I ran an innovation lab. The implied mission was to stay on plan, no matter what.

Risk is not trying something new. Risk is pretending the world in the future looks similar to the world in the present or past. Risk is not being willing to make mistakes and learn from them.

Companies need to change the way they think about innovation. It’s not about running innovation projects through a central command post like the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s not about always asking about how and who is going to fund it. It’s about putting the right people outside the centre of the company to learn from startups and other innovators doing similar things, and about driving a different agenda.

It is about trying things. It means making mistakes and sharing those lessons. And it’s about doing this over and over again until you realize you are ahead of the curve and you’ve seen something no one else has seen.

That’s when innovation creates value and disruption.

Three days in Munich made it clear that innovation activities in large companies around the world are designed to create projects, but not discomfort. Companies need to not only prepare for discomfort, but embrace it and leverage it to explore new products, processes, and business models for the future.

If they don’t, they will lose their best and most talented employees to startups and other companies who will do the disrupting from the outside, and that is a whole lot more dangerous.

On June 14, Communitech will host the first Intrapreneurship Conference event in Canada. We will bring leading speakers, professors and intrapreneurs to share lessons on how they have built successful innovation programs inside. This is a great opportunity for executive sponsors and intrapreneurs to sit together and learn how to build and execute an innovation agenda. All details can be found here. We look forward to seeing you there.

Photo: Munich skyline by Alex DROP is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Nimble Hippo looks at how large organizations can build innovative cultures and disruptive strategies by taking the best lessons from startup ecosystems and applying them in a big-company context.

About The Author

Craig Haney
Director, Corporate Innovation, Communitech

Craig is leading the charge for corporate innovation in Canada. His work with Canadian Tire Innovations helped launch the LeanLab project at Communitech, helping large, non-tech companies become faster and more innovative by engaging with startups. As Director of Corporate Innovation at Communitech, his focus is to grow the ecosystem by exposing small companies to big problems they can solve for some of Canada’s largest players. Craig has an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and a Masters of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technonogy (MBET) from the University of Waterloo.