Intrapreneurship: a tool for organisations to deliver on commitments to ‘purpose’ and create a more empowered, independent and inspired workforce

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It's no secret that organisations are desperately seeking ways to offer their millennial (1983 – 1994) and Gen-Z (1995 – 2003) employees opportunities to find more meaning in their work, more belief in what they are doing and, dare I say it given my previous article more 'purpose'.

Likewise, these employees are also distractedly looking for ways to have greater autonomy over their work, learning, personal development and ultimately their lives.

Freedom, as much as ever, is alive in these generations. Not only in the way they/we approach working life, but in our demands of politics, society and the treatments of others.

This freedom is taking on a new shape of its own, with many of our generation realising the limitless potential of technologies that have come to fruition over the last 20 years. We have the skills that come with being born digital, and benefit from growing up through the technology revolution of the 00’s and 10’s.

Yet at the same time, many working within these organisations read about wonder stories of young entrepreneurs who have already made their mark – making a so-called ‘impact’ and executing on their desires to improve the world. We listen to podcasts, hear of the start-up world and of side-hustles, but frankly few truly do anything about it.

The gulf between our desire to have impact, and our actual execution of this, I believe, is a contributing factor to the mental discomfort my generation are facing within companies, both large and small.

Full of ideas, full of ways to achieve these, but fundamentally challenged by the time they can spend on these ideas, due to the demands of the workplace. This is certainly not me speaking out against these companies – these are our jobs, many that we are paid well for.

Likewise, I also feel that there is a sense of apathy. Rather than taking some responsibility for not executing on goals – realising that those who have achieved so much so young have likely taken high risks, worked tirelessly whenever they can, and continuously failed and learned – there is a trend to blame the employer.

In research conducted by Deloitte, 10,455 millennials (born 1983-1994) from 36 countries were surveyed with the intention of understanding what company attributes keep full-time millennial employees loyal, and what encourages them to look elsewhere.

It revealed that 43% of individuals plan to leave their current jobs within two years, and just 28% plan to stay beyond five. Of course, the reasons for these stats are incredibly nuanced, but the primary factor was losing faith in the ethics of their employer, particularly those working in large-private sector organisations.

This will be no surprise to you reading this given the wave of ‘purpose-led’ thought leadership content and company branding in the last few months.

I digress... This aim of this research is not to frankly state the obvious, that we all want to be able to do better, but rather offer some optimism and even a potential tool.

So, how might we, as the millennial / gen-z employees working within these organisations, work alongside the current leaders, who are also looking for ways to support us, to find a solution. Fundamentally, this is a challenge best worked on by all generations, like all the challenges we face (something I’ll come onto in a later post).


I believe Intrapreneurship could be one way forward.

First, I'll explain what I define it to be, followed by the back story to my interest. I’ll also endeavour to suggest reasons why it can be a tool used collectively to create better organisations, where employees young and old, the leaders and led, can create lasting change in this next decade which demands new ways of innovating and collaborating.


Background and definition of intrapreneurship

I’m sure many of you will recognise this word. If you don’t, it’s not hard to figure out: entrepreneurship within.

In the last 30 years, many definitions have been used. These include: “employees who do for corporate innovation what an entrepreneur does for his or her start-up”, “self-appointed general managers of a new idea” and “drivers of change to make business a force for good”.

Essentially, intrapreneurship involves demonstrating and driving the skills and personality that is often known as entrepreneurship from within. The ability to build trusting teams, discover new opportunities, tolerate risk, be ambitious, creative and self-reliant, learn from mistakes, and ultimately the willingness to take a leap of faith.

The origin of the term came from a white paper by Gifford Pinchot and his wife Libba titled “Intra-Corporate Entrepreneurship” in 1978. This led to a rigorous debate, the coining of the term intrapreneur, and eventually the publishing of Gifford’s book: ‘Intrapreneuring – Why you don’t have to leave the corporation to become an entrepreneur’ in 1985.

The book looks at examples of Intrapreneurship; from the accidental creation of post-it notes at 3M to numerous products at IBM. The term was then broadly used for the next 10 years and made its way into many organisations in one way or another.

I feel we can do more! Gifford’s book was my first real discovery of the potential for well structured, supported and funded intrapreneurship. These are all aspects of current Intrapreneurship I feel are lacking.

Gifford is a true pioneer, his thoughts as alive now as much as they were when he wrote it 34 years ago (9 years before I was born):

in a time of rapid economic and technological change, the entrepreneurial spirit can be a unique and important advantage, but only if we learn to use it”.

Gifford understood the desire for autonomy and independence, yet the challenges that come with this:

“In 1870, 80% of working Americans were self-employed. Today (1986) only 7% are (this is closer to 10% in a 2019 study), although I’m sure they wish they weren’t”.

He goes on:

“Our society is caught in a tug of war between bigness and smallness. We yearn for personal satisfaction, independence, and freedom of small organisations. But we cannot return to being a nation of small proprietorships, because the tasks of modern society are too complex…. What is needed in a way to have the advantage of both bigness and smallness at once”.

Although I’d contest the idea that challenges of modern society are too complex for ecosystems of “smallness”, this is the value of intrapreneurship – then, and now.

Following this, I wanted to dig deeper into this newfound interest. I stumbled across a book that had only just been published which explored a fascinating journey of an organisation created within a large company with the goal of doing well by doing good - a 'not for loss'.

Without realising this turned out to be an organisation I knew well, ADP – Accenture Development Partnerships - a hugely well regarded ‘Intraprise’ within Accenture. Gib Bulloch’s ‘Intrapreneurship – confessions of a corporate insurgent’ journals his experiences, wrestling the corporate world with his passions for change from within. A brilliant read I’d highly recommend. Gib has since been a great mentor and I’m looking forward to making it onto his ‘Business Decelerator’ lab, Craig Beroch, which creates a – a playground for experimentation, through playfulness, creativity and innovation, all in service of Intrapreneurship and driving systemic change in business.

Since this passion began I started seeing intrapreneurship everywhere. In conversations with colleagues and other organisations, I have seen that there is a huge amount of ideas within companies, they just need the space to be developed, nurtured and supported.


My passion for Intrapreneurship

For those that know me, in particular my poor housemates, I have been beating the drum of intrapreneurship for some time. Indeed, my journey of discovery had a major impact on the way I saw my position and future within a large company.

As a son of two inspiring and incredibly impactful entrepreneurs, as well as a network of siblings, cousins and mentors alike, I have been exposed to entrepreneurship all my life, witnessing the ups and downs, the lessons, the pains and the joys.

Having grown up immersed in entrepreneurship, I have always looked to find solutions to problems, and simultaneously create a following and community around this. However, that does not necessarily mean this can’t be done within organisations. I have personally setup my own small ‘intraprises’ and likewise seen many others do the same.

Further to this, in discussions with friends, colleagues and peers, I often hear people say versions of “yes, I’d like to do this job, then start my own thing”.

Interesting, exciting and certainly a great goal; but can you do that now, whilst in your company?

If an entrepreneur is a problem-solver, willing to take risks, build and nurture a committed team, and create positive change, why not do that within an organisation? What better way to learn than to become one and prove to others your unique skills by doing it from the inside.

That said, the challenge is of course, not only the individual, but convincing the organisation that funding your idea, using your time or resources, makes sense.

Written by
Ross Power