Intrapreneurship is a lie.

That’s a provocative statement, especially when it comes from a former intrapreneur (who then turned consultant). In a recent post he outlines a couple of reasons why intrapreneurship seems not to be working out well, and adds:

As much as organizations want to hire talented, entrepreneurial people and as much as those people find global impact appealing, there will never be a way for the kind of results both seek to be achieved unless large companies can make the cultural shift to spread innovative thinking throughout the company while finding ways to reward this work in a way that retains top talent.

You spot it, right? Intrapreneurship won’t work for large companies UNLESS they make the cultural shift needed to support it.

Nothing new, of course. Ever since our first Intrapreneurship Conference in 2011, “culture” and leadership have been a core element of our agendas, since every innovator knows it’s never about the process or method you use for coming up with great ideas- it’s how the larger organizations responds to your new ideas on how you (should) operate as a company.

So, is intrapreneurship a lie? Of course not. A fancy title (that probably got some solid eyeballs) for a good piece from a guy who does really great work- but it tells only part of the story. It’s not easy for sure, but a growing number of companies show that it is possible to shake up the culture to make innovation stick. 

Here are two examples.


Adobe Kickbox

Adobe’s Mark Randall @ Intrapreneurship Conference Silicon Valley

Mark Randall was a founder and serial entrepreneur, and his startup – which had done 4 products in 5 years, 3 of them huge successes – had been acquired by Adobe. They were looking for him to ship new products.

Initially, Mark had no idea how to function in such a huge team – he was used to 250 people at most. He couldn’t get anything off the ground for the first 2 years. He needed to go back to a ‘beginner’s mind’. As a result he developed Kickbox.

Adobe Kickbox is an open source process for getting things done with the underlying assumption that your organization will not help or support you.

Inside the box, you find: a prepaid credit card for $1,000, to test the idea of the product without needing internal approval; sugar and caffeine; and simple instructions, broken down into 6 levels with a set of checkboxes at the end of each level. Innovators move through each level and once they’ve checked all the level 6 boxes, they’ve beaten the red box and earn a blue box – by getting a senior director or above to fund their next round of experiments.

To date, Adobe has given out over 1600 red boxes, and 26 blue.

Before Kickbox, Adobe’s innovation process could involve 6 months of prototyping at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, with a team of designers, product manager, maybe even ethnographers. They averaged perhaps a dozen ideas per year, and out of that 2-4 new products – a 1 in 4 hit rate – which Adobe felt was a sign they weren’t trying risky enough ideas.

Kickbox changed Adobe’s innovation culture entirely. Employees in non-traditional roles are pursuing ideas. There is no limit on ideas, no idea judging committee – the innovator is the CEO for the first $1K of their idea, and that autonomy has opened up the imagination gates. Sound risky? Adobe realized that if you want to change the playing field, there is no zero risk option.

For 4 years, internal innovators have been testing unfiltered ideas, directly with small numbers of end users for a brief period of time, and… the world has not ended. Instead, the risk-taking has paid off in new ideas, new skills and a rich culture of innovation.

Practice, not perfect at Yammer/Microsoft

Cindy Alvarez of Yammer/Microsoft @ Intrapreneurship Conference Silicon Valley

Same same but different is the story of Yammer which was acquired by Microsoft. Cindy Alvarez was hired to grow Yammer’s culture within the organization.

As a startup, they’d done a lot of iterative development, data-driven product design, talking to customers, building a freemium model – all things that the rest of Microsoft wanted to learn about. And though the CEO of Microsoft set a cultural expectation of being experimental and lean and customer-obsessed, it wasn’t enough to actually change behaviour.

Cindy started by identifying “bright spots”. She hung out in the atrium and let everyone know where she was, and that they could drop by and chat about Yammer and innovation.

She also started visiting teams, and allowed them to be skeptical. She asked them if they had any idea how they were going to implement the new lean, customer-obsessed mandate – and who, if anyone, thought it was a stupid idea that would go badly.

She then asked them to come up with ideas on how to mitigate problems, and how to make things run smoothly. By letting teams air their concerns and come up with possible solutions, they were more likely to get excited and commit.

Furthermore, anyone could send people to her office for a week to hang out and interview customers, and she would be there to offer advice, feedback and encouragement. This helped employees get pushed into action right away, and learn on the job.

She also pushed the notion that failure was to be expected, and it was ok. She made sure people knew that they couldn’t learn how to do a new process and meet all their deadlines, meet the same quality, and ship the same number of features that they did in the past.

People understood that this wasn’t lowering standards – it was exchanging the learning process for a possible slip-up somewhere, and that was ok.

No one said it would be easy. But intrapreneurship is not a lie, and innovators within large companies are shaking up the culture to make innovation stick. What other examples of innovators leading the cultural change at their companies do you know of?