Why your company needs to embrace intrapreneurship: 4 unexpected reasons



In the run up to the Intrapreneurship Conference in Barcelona this year, I’m talking to a few people who have the words “intrapreneurship” or “innovation” on their business card. One of the speakers at the conference is Shannon Lucas, who is a Senior Enterprise Innovation Manager at Vodafone Global Enterprise.

Shannon is part of a small team of three innovators who go out and help global Vodafone customers become more entrepreneurial and innovative. Or as she sums it up: “We try to take new ideas to the point of no return.” Shannon spoke to Whiteboard about her approach to making businesses more inventive and innovative – and more vulnerable in the process.

Shannon’s team’s job description is to work closely together with the customers of the Vodafone Global Enterprise (VGE) – a business unit that serves the largest global companies with operations all over the world. VGE provides a single point of contact to help enterprises leverage global telecommunications to improve their business.

To get a better understanding of what the customers need, Shannon and her team members engage with customers to ideate about how new and existing solutions can transform their business, sometimes resulting in co-creating new products.

Reason 1: It will bring you closer to your customers

Shannon Lucas: “The innovation team at Vodafone Global Enterprises was created by Juan-Jose Juan (affectionately known as JJ), the Head of Enterprise Innovation. He previously ran the VGE product team and felt that, even with the best of intentions, it sometimes took too long to get innovations to market. He recognized that in this ever-quickening market place, large companies like VGE need to be able to react more quickly. So he created a small innovation team to address these needs.”

The approach of the innovation team is very focused, and based on four pillars, says Shannon. The first pillar is focused on understanding the needs of the customer.The team facilitates customer innovation forums or workshops which focus on creating an open dialogue; sharing three to five year strategies, examples of telecommunications best practices and an ideation session about how these best practices can enhance he customer’s business. In this phase, the team also works on evangelizing an intrapreneurial atmosphere at the customers.

Next comes a phase of co-creation, prototyping and ecosystem development. Then comes what is famously called dogfooding at Google. Only Vodafone doesn’t dogfood its own innovations, says Shannon. “We prefer to call it Project Champagne – as in we prefer to drink our own champagne (laughs)”. From testing and iterating internally, the project moves on with the goal of taking prototypes to a point of no return, ultimately distributing them to between 200 and 500 people.

What happens next depends on who wants to fully develop the idea. It can be either Vodafone Global Enterprise or the customer who is involved in the co-creation.

Whiteboard: So you’re basically at the start of the innovation process?

Shannon: “It’s more of an iterative process. It could be something that we notice internally or that we hear repeatedly from our customers. For example. we noticed that people often join 10 minutes late to conference calls. So we ask customers: hey, is that something that’s bothering you guys too? Once we’ve identified a common challenge throughout the ecosystem, we go off and create a working prototype solution.  We go back and ask the customer, ‘We think we cracked this nut – why don’t you have a look and tell us what you think about our prototype?’ Like most innovation, it’s really customer led.”

“The other part of our job is to promote intrapreneurship within our own company. We call these early adopters, Innovation Champions. We’d like for intrapreneurship to become embedded in the day to day of what people do. Ideally there are multiple ways that colleagues can engage; by providing ideas for improving the business or by engaging with the customer in new ways. We try to evangelize the concept of innovation, to encourage people to participate, provide feedback and suggest simple ways we can improve the business.”

“One of the goals of the organization is to facilitate an ambitious number of customer workshops per year. We could never do that with our small team, so we have to recruit intrapreneurs – the Innovation Champions – across the entire organization to help achieve those goals.”

“But it’s not just the Innovation Champions. We encourage everyone throughout the organization to start to think as intrapreneurs; to go to their customers and say: What is your strategy for the next three to five years? How can we help you with that? And then we can help them by sharing our best practices, and through brainstorming and whiteboarding, to look for new opportunities.”

Whiteboard: How would you describe  your job? Is it artistic? Or is it more like being a hunter?

Shannon Lucas: “Oh, we fully embrace the term ‘troublemakers’. My boss always reminds me: ‘Remember that you’re not the normal one’. We have to recognize that we are at the forward edge. Our job is to identify areas within the organization that will benefit the most from exploring new concepts and to gently push the company in those directions. I recently did a few Innovation Forums in Africa, both with customers and internally. This internal dialogue is equally important because it provides  two-way conversations about how Innovation is working within to different parts of our organization. Vodafone is a large company and it helps to provide visibility into the different pockets of innovation and to create a global culture of change. Africa is a very innovative market right now and it is amazing to see how creatively the local teams and customers are in employing mobile technologies.”

“These internal conversations can be challenging. But we have to continually remember that this is probably all very new for many people. It takes time for people to process.”

Reason 2: It connects people in surprising ways

Whiteboard: It’s more like a therapist,  then? Liberating people of something like learned helplessness – the idea that they can’t change their organizations as individuals?

Lucas: “That’s a good way to put it, yes. Sometimes innovation really requires something like internal therapy sessions, where we bring between five and eight top level executives together. It can be anyone – Strategy & Innovation, HR, CFO, Marketing and others. Whenever you talk about mobility, which is a big topic for most companies these days, it’s important to have multiple stakeholders in the room who employ mobility in different ways. Very often our customers will tell us after an Innovation Workshop that they have never sat in the room together in that configuration, particularly focused on aligning their strategies. But we need them all in the room, because while we know global telecommunications, no one knows their business better than they do.”

“One of my favorite stories is from a beverage company in South Africa where we were talking to the CIO and various business leaders about mobility best practices. We had originally requested that the Head of HR be included in the workshop. Half way through the session, CIO had an epiphany and he said ‘I get it. I really have to get someone from HR to join us.’ The next example we happened to be sharing was focused on a mobile marketing solution. The Head of HR was so excited with the solution because she recognized that it could help her fill a need around employee engagement. I never would have made that connection for her, she needed to be there to connect the dots. Just by facilitating a conversation between different stakeholders from the customer, you help them create new connections and ideas.”

Whiteboard: Can you spot fellow innovators – or troublemakers – immediately?

Lucas: “Yes, I think I can. I spent quite some time distilling the traits that really give them away. What strikes me most is that they are perfectionists. They’re always trying to improve something. Whether it’s an internal process,  the interaction with customers, or the product set.”

“They are passionate about becoming better. They need that too, because for the projects that work on, they really need to be able to tap into a passion. They also seem mostly unafraid – they have this intrinsic conviction that they’re doing the right thing for the company, and that really shows. It also helps when you’re trying to convince customers of an idea. Customers can smell authenticity on a person.”

Whiteboard: You said innovators need to ‘tap into a passion’. Do you feel a lot of innovative ideas end up shipwrecked because of office politics?

Lucas: “Politics is always a factor. I always warn people that they should be aware of the DNA of their company. I think if you’re unaware of it, the best intentions go to waste. Unless maybe if you’re the CEO and really committed to changing the direction of the company. You can only push the boundaries of your organization so far.”

“That’s what we mean by getting an idea past the point of no return. When an idea is small, when it’s just a seed, it really needs protection. You need to protect it inside a small group, and gradually get buy in from all the stakeholders. It helps to get feedback on the idea, to make people feel involved in it. And by the time you have gone through the iterative process, you should reach a point where you get critical mass and acceptance.

“That’s part of why we do the innovation roadshows: to build awareness and consensus internally. Sometimes it’s really the boring stuff that kills ideas; like if middle management isn’t on board, and KPI’s don’t get aligned with the innovation. That can kill the innovation process.”

Reason 3: It teaches people to think in terms of abundance, not scarcity

Whiteboard: Are some companies beyond innovation, you think?

Lucas: “I would say that there are really toxic environments, yes, where the politics stifle innovation. But no company is ever irreversible, I think. It definitely does take leadership being onboard with creating change.”

“Mostly toxic behaviors exist in companies that still hold onto a paradigm of scarcity instead of abundance. When management thinks it needs to hold on to something that is shrinking instead of trying to grab an opportunity.”

“People generally look for meaning in their work. But in a scarcity environment, people shut down.”

“What’s interesting is that there has been a lot of focus on the visionary leader. And there’s also an emerging body of work about the intrapreneur, the troublemaker. But what’s maybe lacking is insight into how we can change middle management. How we can incentivize them to be more risk taking, to follow their passion.”

Whiteboard: I recently had a discussion on LinkedIn about how successful CEOs can still ‘see’ the small company through all the product lines and financial statements. I guess it’s harder for middle managers to see and feel the bigger picture. How can we train them to do that?

Lucas: “One of the companies that does this really well, I think, is General Electric. They were one of the first twelve companies on the Dow Jones index, and they’re the only one remaining of those twelve. The reason is that they’ve always managed to innovate – they still do electricity and power, but they’re in healthcare, aviation, media. They reinvented themselves, while staying true to their core.”

“For telecoms, that’s particularly pressing, as you know, since the core functionality of telecoms is being commoditized by virtual operators.”

Whiteboard: I hear echoes of Jim Collin’s work there: stay true to the core, while relentlessly reinventing yourself. Could you explain what that GE core looks like for you?

Lucas: “I guess that because they were founded by a visionary like Thomas Edison,  entrepreneurship is a big part of the DNA of the company. On the other hand, I can imagine that it’s also something that’s quite easy to lose. It’s not a given that GE will manage to keep this in their DNA. But they at least have a strong foundation.”

“I think it’s incredibly hard to keep innovating while preserving your core. It’s also different for every company. What worked for Apple might not work for Vodafone. That’s where we come back to the idea that you should understand the DNA of your organization.”

“The biggest limitation: the personal. Innovation is about personal connections, about building trust. It’s trust between  internal teams, but also between VGE and the customers. You can have a shared vision of where the company needs to go, but if there’s no trust, you will have no results.”

“Today, GE is opening up their intellectual property to other participants in its open innovation. That is an illustration of a culture of abundance: you realize that there’s so much opportunity, that you can’t capitalize on innovation alone.”

Reason 4: It shows people that vulnerability is a prerequisite for strength

Whiteboard: You are saying that innovation is about making friends?

Lucas: “Definitely, it really is. When we try to get people on board with innovations, we of course show them some numbers to show the efficacy of what we’re doing.”

“But it’s really about telling the story, explaining the meaning of what we’re trying to do – that’s what people buy into. Of course if you consistently don’t hit your numbers, everybody will step back and abandon you. The real support comes from telling the story about the transformational power of what you’re doing; you connect with them emotionally. Those ties are much harder to sever if you hit a bump in the road. And bringing new ideas to the market is hard, so you will need people to support you throughout the process.”

“What I sometimes feel from other people is a fear to engage in something. I think that the ability to transcend this fear is one of the tangible assets of innovators: the will to be authentic and to put yourself out there. It is the only way to take realize successful innovations. You need the self-confidence to say: this idea is meaningful, and I will do what is required to keep it alive, to take it where it needs to go.”

“In a real way, you need to show your vulnerability to show your strength.”

This year, the Intrapreneurship Conference lands in Barcelona (11-12-13 December). It’s one of the fastest growing niche conferences out there, with an impressive lineup of speakers. You can check for yourself: Vodafone, Philips, IBM, Allianz and Alcatel-Lucent, as well as a number of innovation experts will present their learnings and insights into intrapreneurship. Whiteboard is a media partner for the conference, and we have the pleasure of introducing a few of the speakers here. 

[Photo: "Point of no return", laszlo-photo, Flickr]

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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