There’s no shortage of innovation buzzwords and catch phrases in tech:
“Fail fast and fail often”… "Lean This, Agile That”… "Something about faster horses.”
And now, corporations are catching on.
Yesterday’s Six Sigma black belts are quickly being displaced by lean startup experts. This is fantastic and helpful for corporations charting new courses in an era of business dominated by digital innovation.
But this won’t be another article covering how to innovate.
Instead, I’ll be empathizing with those tasked with innovating from inside a non-tech corporation. The growing body of work on innovation is inspiring and logical, but extremely challenging in practice.
The most significant barriers for an "intrapreneur” stem from larger challenges of behavior change. Large corporations are mature, with business models that have been optimized for a particular type of revenue. Hierarchies are stable, divisions are logical. Corporations have learned how to make money.
But from the first murmurs of “digital innovation” the path becomes fuzzier. Because whatever got you here, most certainly won’t get you there.
To even begin charting a course, we must first acknowledge the need for a behavior change. Understanding how to innovate doesn’t matter if you can’t get your team behind you. The intrapreneur’s path to innovation starts by understanding where you are on the journey, and figuring out what to do to get to the next phase.
Psychology will help us. I’ll use a model based on common behavior change theory:
Stage 1: Pre-Contemplation (Not Ready)
This is the earliest stage of corporate innovation. Someone with decision-making power has decided that the company must do something vaguely innovative. S/he doesn’t really know what this means, so they promote someone internally, or hand a charter “to innovate” to an existing leader. Thus, an intrapreneur is born (whether you liked it or not)!
But just like when you want to lose weight, you have to properly plan activities and behaviors in order to achieve that goal. Innovation is no different, albeit less about refusing sugar and more about…well…creative thinking.
This early stage can be tricky. You might be alone, feeling particularly unequipped to explore this new and uncharted digital territory. You’re an early voyager, sailing toward the horizon, unsure if there’s even land on the other side, or if you’re just going to fall off the edge of the Earth.
Relax. Start simple and establish some general goals and constraints. Are you adding a new offering or improving an existing one? Are you trying to save money or make more?
Having set a general direction, find other innovative thinkers within your organization to help you hone your vision. They will eventually serve as your innovation disciples.
As it relates to behavior change, this stage is as much about everyone else as it is about you. You won’t exit this stage overnight, so don’t be discouraged about timing. This is a test of corporate desire for innovation. Upward resistance, lack of motivation, and unwillingness to help may foreshadow signs of an uphill battle.
- Not having the right expertise
- Newness to the digital domain
- Unarticulated vision
How to get to the next phase:
- Establish some constraints
- Identify innovative thinkers on your existing teams
- Start learning
Stage 2: Contemplation (Getting Ready)
Making it to the contemplation stage is a success in and of itself; it’s a deliberate step toward intent. You and/or those passing down the "innovation directive” recognize the merits of such a project, and you’ve begun to carefully weigh its pros and cons.
It’s worth noting that nothing tangible has been created yet, nor will it be in this phase…you’re merely committed to thinking deeply about ideas.
Contemplation can be as exciting as it is disheartening. You’re exhilarated by the pros of innovation, but keenly aware of the cons. It’s not uncommon to end up with equal reasons to proceed, and equal reasons not to, so don’t feel discouraged if it feels like your enthusiasm oscillates day-by-day or even hour-by-hour. That’s just your expertise working in overdrive.
If you’re still on your own during the contemplation phase, find a third party to balance your optimism and pessimism. Overconfidence may blind you to obvious barriers; defeatism unfairly ignores past successes. Innovation accountability makes good ideas great, and provides necessary support for overcoming FUD…fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Continue honing your idea as you further analyze possible outcomes of your idea. “Solutioning” really kicks off in the next phase, so don’t get too caught up in perfecting the idea. Establish a rough plan and be deliberate about setting goals, however big or small. They’ll keep you on track, serve as methodical checkpoints, and fuel your enthusiasm with quick wins…all in preparation for the next phase.
- Chronic contemplation
- Behavioral procrastination
- FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt)
How to get to the next phase:
- Plan your journey
- Set immediate goals
- Chase quick wins
Stage 3: Preparation (Ready)
We’re doing this thing, so it’s time to prepare.
Where appropriate, spread the gospel internally to motivate your team, and share your idea with anyone who will listen. Simply planting the idea with others is enough to recruit them into your army of thinkers. They probably won’t advance the idea dramatically, but it’s likely they’ll think of something you didn’t. Use cognitive diversity to your advantage.
If you feel unequipped with the internal resources available, seek outside help. There’s only so much self-diagnosis you can do on WebMD before you really ought to visit a bonafide doctor.
Third-party validation can be scary to think about…you are the expert, after all…not them. Don’t feel threatened by replacement. They’re not there to replace you. But outside help does have two distinct advantages over you: ignorance and naïveté. Though exceedingly helpful, domain expertise can substantially handicap your ability to innovate, so a third party, either from within your organization or outside, will provide new and unaffected perspective.
Use the diversity of your new team members to validate your idea from all angles. A future article will cover this in more detail, but to summarize: pick your market, identify the competition, determine your user(s), and find your differentiator.
- No idea validation
- Lack of adequate research
How to get to the next phase:
- Divvy up the work
- Seek outside help
- Find the right team (it might not be yours)
Stage 4: Action (Current Activity)
Making it to the action stage will feel like that very first time you rode a bike without training wheels. It’s terrifying in the beginning because things just got real and you’re 100% certain you’re going to die at any moment. But once you gain your balance, you feel a wash of sheer euphoria as you watch the road whiz beneath you.
Innovation is, by definition, all about creating something new. And the unfamiliar is scary. That’s why riding a bike for the first time was so stressful. Your body was adjusting to a new experience. So allow yourself to adjust to the discomforts of innovation. It may seem like there are unknowns at every corner, and you’ll find yourself without all the answers more often than you’re accustomed, but that’s validation that you’re doing it right.
Most importantly: Stick to the plan. As long as you don’t veer the bike off the sidewalk and into the grass, you’re going to be okay. Be careful not to get overly overconfident in your ability to deliver. You just got up on two wheels…now is not the time to be doing wheelies. If you were thorough and meticulous during the planning phase, the project should be accurately scoped. Adding anything beyond that creates more stress, introduces unforeseen variables, and reduces the quality of work across the board.
Beware of priority changes as they can hinder the entire process. These can be difficult to manage at large corporations because shifting priorities may take months to surface and/or never make it down the chain of command, but don’t let them fully derail you. Your idea may still prosper, albeit through a different strategic lens than you’d originally planned.
Lastly, have agreed-upon methods to measure success. For one, it’ll force you to stop and smell the roses. Incremental wins are still wins, so start small, prove value, and slowly raise your targets.
- Not sticking to the path
- Partial action
- Scope creep
- Priority changes
- No KPIs
How to get to the next phase:
- Take action!
- Set deadlines
Stage 5: Maintenance (Monitoring)
The maintenance phase may seem like the end of the road, but the Intrapreneur’s Journey is cyclical. Be proud of your success, but don’t become complacent. There are always new opportunities to innovate, so use the momentum from your first project as fuel to start a new one.
As you monitor the outcomes of your project, have a procedure for collecting and prioritizing feedback. Due to the nature of innovative ideas, users and customers may initially react negatively simply because of unfamiliarity. Allow time for adjustment, and distill both positive and negative reactions to understand why something did or didn’t succeed.
- Getting too comfortable
- Overreacting to feedback
The biggest challenge for intrapreneurs is creating and maintaining a culture of innovation. Talking about innovation is a good first step, but a culture is built on action and pervasiveness. Everyone has to be on the same page, so behavior change is central to the success of corporate innovation.
Want to learn more? Half of my career was spent innovating inside of large enterprises, so I’m happy to chat over coffee. Let’s connect.
You can read more about the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change here.