Intrapreneurs are at the heart of Australian Innovation - Part 1

April 5, 2017

Intrapreneurs are at the heart of Australian Innovation
Innovation drives global economic growth1; from the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century via the digital revolution of the mid-20th century to the data revolution we’re living through now, innovation is at the heart of every successful economy.

Since a country’s economy is a measure of its industry, it makes sense that organisations – and politicians – spend a lot of time scratching their head over ways to make business more innovative.

On the world stage, Australia was 19th on the 2016 Global Innovation Index2, not bad out of 126 but well down on the top three: Switzerland, Sweden and the UK.

Australia’s ‘could-do-better’ report card is partly to do with investment spending, and partly to do with turning ideas into trade. But innovation still needs ideas, and smart companies are starting to realise ideas can come from all over the organisation.

For every budding entrepreneur leaving their job to launch another start-up, there’s a whole host of ‘intrapreneurs’ staying put and waiting for someone up the chain to hear their ideas.

Intrapreneurs? … no that’s not a typo!

When the great American inventor Thomas Edison started working as a telegraph operator for Western Union in 1866, he asked for the night shift so he could pursue his two great loves, reading and experimenting.

Ultimately experimenting got him fired after he spilled sulphuric acid and it leaked onto his boss’s desk. But not before he came up with some early inventions, including the stock ticker which was developed commercially by Western Union. 3

Of course, those of us who love music and like to see in the dark will be grateful he was freed up to invent the early gramophone and the electric lightbulb. But Edison’s contribution to Western Union had all the hallmarks of an intrapreneur. And it’s probably no surprise that Western Union is still winning awards for innovation today.4

How do I spot the intrapreneurs in my business?

Intrapreneurs look like every other employee and it takes a practised eye, and a little inspired leadership, to spot them. But look closely because they’re the underutilised resource in every organisation.

Intrapreneurs ask questions; they are driven to challenge the status quo, achieve self-set goals, and often have advanced networking and problem-solving skills. They work to create pathways for their ideas to be realised and will test, validate and follow up on those ideas until they are.

They’re self-confident, prefer to work autonomously and to the untrained managerial eye can often be a source of frustration because they operate at the edges of the corporate comfort zone.

They have a tolerance for high risk, take calculated risks and know how to bend the rules. But intrapreneurs are decisive – even in the face of uncertainty – and they’re highly proactive since the realisation of their ideas is a primary motivator.

Intrapreneurs bring different insights, can spot organisational blind spots and can identify unseen threats and opportunities. Ultimately they still have the interests of the organisation at heart, and rely on that access to the resources and relationships that employment offers.

And that makes them one of the most valuable resources a business can have.

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