Creative Talents Languishing at Your Job? Be an Intrapreneur

If you love to create and innovate, and you also love the comfort and security of working for a company, then it's time to consider Intrapreneurship, the perfect blend of both worlds!

Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #619
The Quick And Dirty

Intrapreneurship can drive personal fulfillment and make you an invaluable asset at work. What are some strategies you can use to make it happen?

  • Start with the problem, not the solution
  • Apply existing solutions to new problems
  • Socialize your idea by getting input from your colleagues
  • Create your opportunity by pitching senior leadership
  • Learn from your failures

You know how you’ve always dreamed of building, creating, or inventing that thing? Or sharing your big idea with the world? Or maybe you just dream of finding ways to infuse bits of creativity into your work.

And you know how you also love the sense of security and community you get from having a full-time job? Or how you like going to work without having to figure out how to build a business?

And you know how those two voices are like the angel and devil sitting on your shoulders, whispering furiously into your ears?

If any of this resonates, then let's teach those seemingly competing voices to compromise. The answer they're both seeking is something called "intrapreneurship." It offers a beautiful blend of the comfort of full-time employment with the excitement of building, creating, and innovating.

Companies need big ideas. So if you’re committed to finding and delivering on them, and you want to stick with an established company, then get ready to be a superstar.

So let’s talk about what intrapreneurship is, why you may want to consider it, and the steps you can take to proudly wear the “I’m an intrapreneur” T-shirt.

What is intrapreneurship?

The MIT Sloan School of Management describes intrapreneurship as “acting like an entrepreneur within an established company.”

While entrepreneurs build new businesses on their own, intrapreneurs develop new programs, products, services, innovations, and policies within an existing organization.

Both use many of the same skills—creativity, agility, leadership, and persistence.

Sloan professor Michael Cusumano says:

[Intrapreneurs are] not building something entirely from scratch, nor are they risking their own money. They’re creating something that hasn’t been done before or done quite the same way.

So basically it’s behaving like an entrepreneur but in the confines and safety of an established company.

Why should you consider Intrapreneurship?

In short, being an intrapreneur may benefit you in two ways:

  1. It can lead to personal fulfillment
  2. It makes you a valuable asset at work

You might consider intrapreneurship if you feel you have untapped talents or passions that you could use to make an impact at work. It can be a way to highlight your creativity, or assume a leadership role, or establish credibility amidst the safety and security of your current job ... without making a career change.

Further, when you show members of leadership that you have an intrapreneurial drive, that's appealing to companies who, according to Forbes, struggle to retain innovators who want to start their own ventures.

Companies need big ideas. So if you’re committed to finding and delivering on them, and you want to stick with an established company, then get ready to be a superstar.

How do you become an intrapreneur?

Start with the problem, not the solution

If you’re a natural creative, your attention may be called to shiny objects—features and benefits. But a sexy thing that doesn’t solve an actual problem is just bells and whistles. Before you start duct-taping widgets and switches together, begin by defining an outcome you want to deliver or a problem you plan to solve.

In 2003, a small web design firm called 37 Signals hung out its shingle. They were managing their client projects internally via email and struggling to track the critical details.

They started looking for a project management software to meet their needs, but they came up disappointed. So they built their own and called it Basecamp.

Today, Basecamp is one of the most popular project management tools on the market. So popular, in fact, that 37 Signals even rebranded itself as Basecamp.

A sexy thing that doesn’t solve an actual problem is just bells and whistles.

Turns out, that project management problem 37 Signals was having? Lots of other companies struggled with the same problem. And because Basecamp was never designed to impress, just to solve a problem, the market gobbled it up.

Where do you see a pain point within your organization? If you're not into building a project management platform from the ground up, keep in mind that your problem's solution doesn’t have to be technology. Is your customer service clunky and could you envision a more streamlined process? Is one of your products losing steam and could it use a gentle facelift?

Begin with the problem and then just solve it.

Apply existing solutions to new problems

Sometimes genius comes not from invention or creation, but from a creative application.

The tools and processes were there for the taking, they just needed some adapting.

Last year, a client of mine was struggling to recruit top talent. They were in need of some serious innovation. One day, Kim, the head of Talent Acquisition, happened to be in a meeting with James, a senior sales leader. And as Kim listened to James talk about the strategies his team was using to build a brand around and create demand for his products, she had the idea to adapt some tried-and-true sales strategies to the world of recruiting. The tools and processes were there for the taking, they just needed some adapting.

With support from James, the recruiting organization put those strategies to work. Within six months, they saw major results. Kim showed an entrepreneurial spirit and applied it to the work she was doing within her company by using an existing solution to tackle a new problem. For both Kim and her employer, it was a big win.

Is there an existing solution you could pluck and put to work solving a new problem?

Socialize your idea

It’s almost time to move into sales mode. But a lot of people tell me “Ugh, I’m not a natural salesperson!” If this feels like you, no worries. This is where the “intra” part of intrapreneurship can be your best friend.

Before you put your big idea in front of a senior leader, run it by your colleagues.

Unlike entrepreneurs, who have no choice but to pound the pavement and find clients or customers for their business, innovating within a company means you have plenty of potential collaborators and supporters

Before you put your big idea in front of a senior leader, run it by your colleagues. What reactions do they have?

If they’re excited, pay attention to the words they use to describe the opportunity—not the bells and whistles, but the problem-solving value. Capture their language and start using it yourself. It’ll come in handy when you start talking to executives.

If they seem uncertain or unenthusiastic, ask them to help you fill in the gaps. What would make your idea a win for them?

This process of socializing your idea will help build your confidence and prepare you for the big pitch.

Create your opportunity by pitching senior leadership

You’ve got an idea and you’re clear on why it’s exciting—not just to you, but to those around you. Now it’s time to make a pitch.

Intrapreneurs don’t wait for invitations. They make things happen.

So ask yourself: Who are the key decision-makers here? What do they care about? Should my focus be on cost-cutting? Delighting customers? Growing new business? And how will I tell them that story?

Then go out and make it happen. Figure out who the gatekeepers are and seek their help in getting you on the right calendars. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from those around you.

Learn from your failures

As marketing genius Seth Godin famously said:

Good ideas come from bad ideas, but only if there are enough of them.

Seth Godin

Intrapreneurs seek out many at-bats. They understand that failure is a necessary part of the process. Every failure teaches you something. But the onus is on you to discover what that is. And then you need to use that to inform your next idea. And the next and the next.

So you had a big idea. You pitched it. Your boss said no. I grant you a few minutes to sulk.

But then I need you to buck up and pull something insightful from this no. Was the opportunity not well communicated? Is the market not ready for the idea? Did you pitch it at the wrong point in the fiscal calendar? There are likely some underlying reasons why this idea wasn't a win. Consider this an opportunity to learn and shape your future pitches and ideas.

This is how intrapreneurs play to win.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.