lightbulb
Does your inner light bulb go off with ideas in your company? Photo via Olga Reznik

Every leading corporation was once a startup in some form or another. Scrappy beginnings led to the entities that often define entire industries for a good chunk of the world: Companies like Amazon, Coca-Cola, Google and Microsoft. Beneath what are often referred to as ‘heavy processes’ rests an innovative spirit that once propelled a concept into a sustainable organization.

Cultivating and maintaining this sense of innovation within large companies has received increased attention of late, but the implementation of “intrapraneurial” programs requires deliberate and unique structuring per company.

Intrapreneurship isn’t a market trend that can be abruptly introduced into a large organization. Rather, it must be cultivated — and it must respond to the specific needs, strengths, and shortcomings of the organization — ranging from HR challenges to Research & Development and everything in between.

Microsoft is attempting to provide this type of creative, action-driven atmosphere with their own ‘Microsoft Garage’ — a space dedicated solely to grassroots innovation. “At a company like Microsoft, one of the things we hire for is that creativity and passion around technology,” says project manager Annette Bjorklund. “You want to encourage and support that within a company.”

Although intrapreneurship is a complex layer to add to any company, certain aspects are often a base requirement. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Implement a Framework

An incredible number of underutilized and unchallenged talents and innovators work for large companies.  But often, these companies just need a framework or tool to identify them, connect these people with one another, and let the magic happen. Bjorklund has helped to bring intrapraneurial programs to the Microsoft campus by hosting 54-hour educational events at “The Garage” as one way of bringing innovators together. “You meet new people within the company that you might not have ever worked with before,” she says.

2. Create a Multidisciplinary Environment

Multidisciplinary, hierarchy-free environments are often a unique space where employees can contribute in ways that transcend their more traditional “9-5” roles and responsibilities. Mature companies especially can afford high quality talent in entry-level positions, and intrapraneurial programs provide a “bottom-up” effect, giving people who don’t normally interact with one another a chance to disrupt existing hierarchy, collaborate, or simply gain exposure for an idea.

Bjorklund says, “One of the real values [of these programs] is that a project manager can collaborate with dev, design, business people — they all come together to work on a project. It gets people out of their routines, and that creative outlet winds up helping you in your day job,” she says. Intrapraneurial programs that bring together different backgrounds also expose participants to challenges that they might not normally deal with. For example, a designer may come away with a more thorough understanding and new appreciation for the more granular tasks that are part of an engineer’s daily routine, and it is this type of interactive learning that makes for more efficient and holistic projects in the future.

3. Leverage Existing Resources and Strengths

Large companies are automatically better positioned to provide support for innovation internally. Often, technological, intellectual, monetary, or other prevalent resources in large organizations are not optimized.

Providing a creative outlet for employees is one way to efficiently pair assets with a great idea that wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to take shape. Companies retain a spirit of creativity and may uncover their next big project, and employees are able to cultivate and act on an idea they are passionate about. Instead of looking ‘outside,’ companies should aim to leverage assets they already have in a more meaningful way.

Ultimately, intrapreneurial outlets should be accessible to all employees who have an idea that might help their company stay relevant, innovative, and forward-thinking — and companies that do not crowdsource ideas internally lose the opportunity to leverage the energy and ideas of their own intrapreneurs.

Sustainable high growth organizations understand that innovation should be automatically encouraged, consistently fostered, and always celebrated — it’s time to take their lead.

Claire Topalian is communications director at Startup Weekend. You can follow her on Twitter @clairetopalian

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