In my work helping large corporations innovate and transform I usually encounter two distinct types of intrapreneurs: innovator and innovation manager.

What’s the difference?

Innovator is passionate about delivering something new and exciting to customers, like new products or services, or wants to introduce new technologies that could dramatically alter organisations’ value chain.

Innovation manager is passionate about future-proofing the organisation and understands that can be done by creating systems innovators can thrive in, without breaking the bank or reputation of the company.

One does not exclude the other, in fact, most successful innovation leaders I have met had experience in both doing and managing innovation.

Here is my advice for the innovator:

  • Remember that it’s about the customer. It’s great that you are so passionate about your idea. It’s even better when you can explicitly show how it will have a positive impact on the customer and why they will care.
  • Be humble. Your idea might be amazing, but just because your colleagues did not see it does not mean they are less visionary or intellectually deficient. If that is happening, use the opportunity to stop and reflect. Perhaps you are not explaining it clearly enough. Perhaps the idea is not as brilliant as you thought. Boasting about you doing visionary work while other “worker bees are slaving away” is quite a fast way to losing support.
  • Don’t ask for the world. Even good ideas will get siderailed if they get too much money too early. There are just too many uncertainties to allocate multi-year budget with precision. You are better off to begin by exploring the idea. What’s the underlying problem or need? Who is the customer? What would the value proposition be? Do some desktop research, run some inexpensive tests.
  • Leverage existing organisation. Large organisations usually have various service units, e.g. project management, consulting, service design, and so on. Don’t start by asking for a person to support you for three months. Begin by asking for short mentoring or sparring sessions. An hour here or there can get you a long way in exploring your idea.
  • Creating reusable knowledge is your short term impact. Innovating might be fun for you, but there needs to be something in it for the organisation. Your best short term currency is creating reusable knowledge. In other words, documenting the findings from your desktop research and experimentation in a such way that can be reused by others in the organisation.
  • Increasing revenue potential and decreasing cost is your long term impact. In the end, the innovator will be expected to contribute to the bottom line in some way. Changing the way of work and how value is delivered to customers can help you reduce costs. Introducing new value propositions to existing customers, taking existing value propositions to new customers, and new pricing models (e.g. subscription, freemium, etc) can help you increase revenue potential.

Here is my advice for the innovation manager:

  • You are not clairvoyant. Let the market determine what is a good idea. Innovators are passionate, and will argue for their idea with emotion. Keep an immovable heart and assess the strategic logic of an idea and what is the evidence supporting it so far.
  • Gentle with people, hard on ideas. Care for your innovators, create space for them. Repeat often that it is the idea you are critiquing, and not them.
  • Don’t be a sadist. Holding motivational events exhorting how innovation is great and everybody should be an innovator is nice, but if you cannot follow up with tools and coaching then you are just being a cruel person.
  • Be a translator. Innovators see management as profit obsessed and narrow minded, while management sees that as rebels without a cause. Both perceptions are wrong. You are in a sweet spot to act as a translator for both parties. Continuously translate your business and/or corporate strategy to what does it mean in terms of what ideas are more likely to be funded, and where does the company want to go next. Try to make it as clear as possible, since that will help your innovators bring ideas that are strategically aligned. It is possible to have non-obvious ideas that are aligned.
  • Be a match-maker. Ideas come in all shapes and sizes. Just like innovators. You can drastically reduce uncertainty of investing into a specific idea if you can match it to a proper maturity level (e.g. by using a variant of the product life cycle), which is in turn matched by clear funding options. You can reduce execution risk by matching the idea with the right innovator. Some people like suggesting ideas but do not want to fully develop it. That’s OK.

Of course, there is much more to being an exceptional intrapreneur, but this advice will help you keep your sanity and reduce unneeded stress.

May the fastest learner win!


This post was originally published on Playing Lean blog.