Intrapreneurship: developing innovation ecosystems in big organisations

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Colonel Bill DeMarco
Colonel Bill DeMarco

The leadership literature is rife with concepts regarding the need for bold leaders at all levels who encourage innovation, embrace new thinking, and take risks to achieve success.

As a United States Air Force Officer and pilot by trade, I know the USAF is all about innovation and has historically been so. Just ponder Orville and Wilbur Wright, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell , General Jimmy Doolittle and General Carl Spaatz to name only a few. These leaders were not simply concerned with technology, they were obsessed with doing things better; they were obsessed with innovation.

Innovation is the application of better solutions that meets new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies or ideas.

Simply put, innovation is something different or new that “breaks into” a market or into society.

Big organisations and the death of innovation

Innovation in a massive bureaucracy is difficult at best. Innovation in a bureaucracy is akin to a massive ship with a very small rudder; a big ship that is simply too hard to steer. Or maybe it is not the ship or the rudder, perhaps it is something else such as the ecosystem.

Creativity and innovation are not only priorities for the US Air Force, innovation is a strategic goal for corporations all across the globe. Despite this growing obsession, most organisations are not good at it. I can’t count the times I have sat in strategy meetings that gathered smart, enthusiastic teams to generate interesting ideas and debate their merits, yet after the meeting nothing much happened.

I have seen excellent ideas from the most junior leaders. In fact, I have personally grabbed those ideas and tried to make them reality. Many times the ideas do grow and become real only to wither and die when leadership changes. It reminds me of how we treat our houseplants. We purchase them, they bloom, they are beautiful, and then they die. It is not that we do not love the plants, but there is simply a lack of skill in caring and nurturing for these delicate things. What’s lacking is a strong houseplant ecosystem and what’s lacking in most large organisations is an ecosystem for innovation. We want the ideas, but they sprout and die. We don’t have the culture to build, or the skills to sustain innovation.

From command to democratic leaders

We can always learn from unique companies like Apple, and one thing that really resonates is that an organisation needs a strong leader to make things happen. In the context of innovation, a strong leader must be able to gather input from many different pools of thoughts and interests and then set the direction for the organisation. It takes a visionary leader to develop a visionary organization that makes an impact in the world.

A strong leader also understands that the organization itself cannot change the world. Once the direction has been set, a leader must be humble enough to bring in external partners and thus “democratise” innovation to some extent. This is where “old-school” command and control leaders often fail.

No time to think…

Studies show that efforts to stimulate intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship within an established company or organisation, more often than not fall flat. According to research at Harvard on innovation models in global companies across diverse sectors, these types of projects fail between 70 per cent and 90 per cent of the time. This is a deeply troubling yet motivating statistic.

There are lots of things that can be done in large organisations but simply aren’t because nobody has the time or resources. WE continue to do MORE with LESS and find we have No Time To Think (NT3); white space has been eliminated from most organisations.

So, it would seem we need to understand as an organisation, to be different means we have to act differently and that begins with giving individuals the time and permission to think and then act on those thoughts.

Towards an innovation ecosystem

The innovation ecosystem is leadership, culture, structure, communication, collaboration, and creative thinking combined with the incentives to keep the ecosystem thriving.

It’s all about leadership. Leadership is the energy in the ecosystem that drives innovation. Leadership is the most essential ingredient in creating a culture of innovation. Organisational structure is the bank of the river directing where the water flows. But culture is the current in the river. It moves people and progresses in a certain direction. If culture is not intentional, it will happen by default-hence leadership is paramount. Leadership creates a culture where innovation is what we do and not simply a miraculous thing that appears exceptionally – every once in a while.

The way I see it, diversity of thought is essential to broadening perspectives. We must engage the next generation, our young leaders who love to bring ideas to work. Senior leaders must create room for new ideas and actively look for ideas throughout the organisation.

Communication is the key in the idea search. We must then work hard to connect people with projects that are personally meaningful to them and encourage individuals to learn in areas outside their expertise and collaborate.

Collaboration is of the highest value. Communication is the process that brings the raw ideas of innovation together, but collaboration makes them better and fully engages the engine of creativity.

Finally, there must be incentive to innovate. We will always have those that do it simply for the greater good of the organization. However, that is not sustainable. Corporate America innovates for profit and a competitive edge. In the military or bureaucracy, innovation might initially mean more work for an individual; we need to think through the incentives of innovation and the recognition of great ideas from the highest level, which brings the ecosystem full circle and back to culture and leadership.

If the culture is not there, leadership will not even take time to recognise the new ideas.

The only way we can do that is to develop an ecosystem of innovation. If we can do that, I know we will be able to provide bold leaders at every level who encourage innovation, embrace new thinking, and take prudent risks to achieve mission success.

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

Colonel Bill De Marco

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