Intrapreneur? You mean “entrepreneur?” What is an intrapreneur?

Lately, I am going through this questioning quite a bit mainly because I am looking for my next engagement either as a full-time leadership role or as a consultant to help an organization create something new. While everybody has an idea (albeit somewhat distorted from reality) about what an “entrepreneur” does, very few understand the role of an intrapreneur. Therefore, I decided to write about it with examples from my own experience.

First, let me explain what I do for organizations: I help them enter a new business area (new market, new product, new service, new P&L), which is typically outside of their knowledge and expertise area.

Now, let’s talk about what my engagements look like. With almost no exception, I am brought in by top executives of the company. This relationship is critical to obtain and maintain sponsorship for the initiative. I dedicate a significant portion of my effort to ensure that the initiative is strongly supported by top executives and the board.

Once in the company, the first thing I assess is its culture and how it sees new initiatives. Culture, in my opinion, is the one factor that can make or break an initiative. The fact that any new initiative requires partnerships, both internally and externally, understanding the internal dynamics is crucial to success. In order to do this, I embed myself into the organization’s development group(s). From here, I reach out to all critical players (at this point, they may not even know that they are players): marketing, sales, finance, research, development, service, support, list goes on. I form a very small (3-5 people) team to work together at this phase.

The next step is to clearly identify the pain point(s) of customers. In almost all cases, the organization thinks heavily in the solution domain but it is critical to articulate the problem(s) of the customers. What would make them running to our doors if they hear that we solve a major problem for them? Christensen calls it the “job to be done” for the customers. If we cannot articulate what that job is, the sexiest technology in the world is useless to most (technology junkies excepted).

Once the problem is defined, the skills required to solve the problem start to shape up. At this point, the team is supplemented with subject matter experts in critical areas.

Then comes the ideation step, where solution concepts to the problem are created. Most people are familiar with this step. Unfortunately, also most people think that this is where innovation starts. In fact, ideation is where solutions are sought to a problem. Problem definition is the first step and it takes inputs from many participants, including existing and potential customers. Ideation involves internal and external participation. At this point, the team may expand if external partnerships are required.

Next is transition to solution development and testing (validating) the solution against the problem. Almost always we find about things we missed at the first validation cycle and feel like idiots. Unearthing facts and requirements is the whole purpose of early validation. Quite a bit of effort goes into creating that “just enough” prototype (Eric Ries calls it “minimum viable product”) and validate it. There is always a struggle where the product appears too raw to the development team and they want to implement just one more thing before they put it in front of a critic (not always the customer). My effort goes into ensuring that the prototype has sufficient features to collect valuable feedback but it does not take forever to get there. Also, the team has to be managed to receive the feedback positively and not be discouraged by it. Otherwise, the team easily gets into “we knew it was too early. Next time, we need more time.” mindset.

This is a highly iterative process and requires a certain type of team to execute. Building, leading and motivating that team is what I do. The team has to be protected from and integrated with the rest of the organization. This seemingly conflicting task is tricky and requires finesse. An isolated “innovation” team, contrary to popular belief, will not be productive. They need to understand what the rest of the organization can do, how much it can evolve, and what their appetite for change is. On the other hand, the main reason the new team exists is because the organization could not do the same job in its routine business. Unfortunately, there is no recipe for the right amount of separation and integration. It depends on the team members, the phase of the project, the culture of the organization, among other things.

If I summarize under a few bullets, here is an overview of the job description of an intrapreneur:

  • Build relations with the exec team and maintain information flow
  • Facilitate the articulation of the problem to be solved
  • Build, lead and motivate a team to make it happen
  • Manage the interactions between the team and the rest of the organization
  • Establish a disciplined innovation culture in the team and maintain it
  • Build and manage internal and external partnerships

I hope I shed some light to what an intrapreneur does.

I welcome your comments on my blog. Please feel free to contact me at ferhan@ferhanbulca.com with relevant comments, ideas and thoughts.

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