A recent McKinsey study indicated only 21% of corporate executives felt they had the resources, commitment, and expertise needed to capitalize on new growth opportunities coming out of the pandemic. Within that, 21% are those unique individuals who bring an entrepreneurial spirit and hustle into their organizations, believing in the opportunity of innovation and how to drive it.
These are the risk-takers, rule breakers, and apple cart up-setters who carve out their own path and tackle the product world with the mindset, spirit, and philosophy of an “Intrapreneur.”
What is an intrapreneur?
Coined by management consultants Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot in 1985, the term “intrapreneur” came to prominence when referenced by Steve Jobs in a Newsweek profile that year. Gifford described the intrapreneur’s role as one “who takes a hands-on responsibility for creating innovation of any kind within a business.” Personally, I prefer Jobs’ more concise definition –– “dreamers who do.”
Intrapreneurs are – in the simplest terms – an internal entrepreneurial force within an organization –– self-motivated, action-oriented problem solvers who thrive when empowered to take the driver’s seat in delivering value to customers, the team, and the company overall.
Benefits of Intrapreneurship
Intrapreneurship fosters innovation, encourages proactivity, and positions your company as a destination to attract leading talent. Intrapreneurial employees benefit by exploring and expanding their creative instincts, rapidly improving their skills and capabilities, and developing the risk tolerance required to truly innovate. The cost of implementing intrapreneurship is offset by improvements in company growth, corporate culture, and talent development and recruitment.
Activating the Intrapreneurial spirit
Activating this intrapreneurial spirit across all areas of product development is critical to the overall health and growth of an organization. The alternative is complacency and stagnation, sticking with what’s worked in the past while ultimately being left behind by competitors and the evolution of the market. From a product manager standpoint, not taking an intrapreneurial approach not only lacks forward-thinking, it also has the undeniable power to make product teams work double time by remaining stagnant.
Intrapreneurs strive to develop an intimate understanding of their market and customers. In true entrepreneurial spirit, they rely on cross-pollinating with subject matter experts to test market data, ideas, and opportunities and to fill in gaps in their understanding. They continually pressure test observations and assumptions to coalesce on an understanding of challenges and opportunities and are keenly data-driven and adept at interpolating and articulating signals within.
The intrapraneur’s focus on data empowers them to identify, prioritize, and execute on opportunities to innovate and evolve, staying ahead of the competition. They ask one thousand “why’s” and two thousand “what if’s,” relying on their knowledge and creativity to identify patterns and opportunities others might not see. This work doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is a cross-functional effort, where the intrapreneur serves as the glue or connective tissue, uniting stakeholders from across the business on a distilled POV regarding where to go next and why. The intrapreneur product manager is both the foreman overseeing operations on the ground – tactically driving execution with technical teams and business stakeholders – and the architect shaping the company’s product vision and future.
Intrapreneurs are the keeper of the flame – the north star utopian goal – but are pragmatic in leading efforts to get there, continually pulse checking to gauge clarity on continuing or if (and what) adjustments are necessary to unlock value. The “adjustment” may mean pulling the parachute cord on an idea leading to a dead end –– a true intrapreneur sees no shame in these outcomes, so long as they fail fast and capture tangible lessons learned to guide next steps on the innovation path. The business must budget for flexibility, extending beyond typical business practices. Calculated bets will be made, and not all bets will be winners, but the business will learn and grow from each.
To create an ecosystem where intrepraneurs can flourish, it’s important to support employee efforts and create a culture that promotes sharing ideas. Product managers should be encouraged to express thoughts and curiosity –– their ideas may just lead to improvements or visionary concepts that can radically alter the market. The organization must provide a channel for ideas to be heard and evaluated while the intrapreneur product manager shepherds ideas through prioritization, managing the resources and test/validation process to bring the best-prioritized ideas to fruition.
Building an intrapreneurial product innovation team
Once opportunities are prioritized, execution is the name of the game –– but what’s the right way to structure teams to drive intrapreneurial innovation? In my experience, a useful team structure for driving innovation operates like an Innovation lab that is totally self-sufficient: They have all the skills necessary for software engineering, data engineering, data science / analytics, and UX and visual design. In other words, they don’t require outside support to innovate end-to-end.
A team like this deployed in an environment that supports innovation can rapidly move mountains. Depending on the size and complexity of a company, there are nuances that guide key considerations before assembling your ‘Innovation lab’ team:
- Should my team be small or large? Do you want a small team that can rapidly execute on a discrete project? Perhaps have multiple concurrent innovation labs, each working on a single prioritized opportunity? Or, would you rather assemble a larger team to manage multiple innovation streams simultaneously.
- Do I need UX resources on the team? Every product designed and built ultimately has an end consumer and user experience, but not necessarily a user interface. The level of design needed to go into a customer-facing product is significantly higher than a backend solution. The amount of effort, resources, and talent you focus on that function should be proportionate to the requirements of the end user.
- How many data resources do I need? How heavy a lift is the data work to drive innovation, and what skills do you have on the team? For some projects, you may only need a full stack developer who can deliver on the data engineering requirements. Sometimes you might have a unicorn data scientist or analytics resource who can do their own data engineering work. In more complicated tech stacks and organizations, you may need a full team of developers, data engineers, and a data scientist to extract and exploit the necessary data for your project to succeed.
The intrapreneurs’ role in taking their company to the next stage
Intrapreneurs work within organizations to test, validate, and turn ideas into actionable execution plans. Every organization has years worth of ideas floating around, but if they lack the intrapreneurial ethos, these ideas will become cobwebbed opportunities that appear too big and risky to touch. Intrapreneurs breathe life into these ideas by following a process that derisks and demystifies innovation via a flow that might look something like this:
- Ideation/Validation: This is the phase where intrapreneurs source opportunities and triage them based on relevance to strategic objective, projected ROI, impact on specific KPIs, and effort level to deliver. Now is the time to capture and document all possible solutions, no matter how obscure they may seem. Validate them through research, customer interviews, and internal stakeholders. Through a cadence of regular reviews with a cross functional steering committee, ideas are groomed and ranked against each other. If the group agrees a particular idea passes muster, it will continue to the research and development (R&D) phase.
- R&D: It is critical that you time box the research and development process to eliminate wasted cycles and maximize speed of validating an opportunity. Take this time for the team to understand the problem at hand – and the customer experiencing it – and explore ways of meeting their needs. From there, the steering committee will review the outcome of the R&D and decide if the opportunity should progress.
- Proof of Concept: Next, the Innovation lab will develop a proof of concept (or minimum viable product) to drive validation with real customers. The intention of the POC or MVP is to operate with specific constraints – you are not trying to solve every problem, but rather laser focus on solving one problem on the path to the larger opportunity. At this stage, it’s about derisking by spending as little as you can in time and money to validate that you’re on the right path –– or learn quickly that you’re not and make necessary adjustments. The POC or MVP phase will be measured according to target KPIs and if the steering committee agrees that results look good, you move onto scaling.
- Scale: If you’ve gotten this far, the product has demonstrated value –– and the market has demonstrated interest. Depending on size and scale of the organization, this could be the point where the Innovation lab passes the development on to other engineering teams to productionalize and formally integrate into the company. The product then goes into living out the full product life cycle and the Innovation lab now has capacity to take on the next prioritized opportunity.
Using a similar development process enables intrapreneurial product managers to ideate, validate, and bring products to market quicker –– improving ROI, eliminating waste, and impacting the bottom line.
Now, let’s reiterate this one more time: Activating an intrapreneurial spirit across all areas of product development is critical to the overall health and growth of an organization. Companies need to start actively instilling this mentality across product management teams, to result in proactive and effective product development. Employees gain a vested interest in their company when they are given the space to offer up ideas for innovation – and creating a company culture where everyone is encouraged to share their ideas is certainly a good place to start.
There’s more where that came from! Explore more great content on Mind the Product
- Product Design in the Era of the Algorithm by Josh Clark
- Product design practices to spur customer adoption in any industry
- Georgie Smallwood on Product Culture, Leadership and Fintech