The Importance of the Intrapreneur

16/02/2015 14:10 GMT | Updated 14/04/2015 10:59 BST

It's one of the great business paradoxes that it's startups rather than large established companies who are typically responsible for breakthrough new technologies. Logically, this makes very little sense. Startups typically have very little cash; large corporations have more than they know what to do with. Startups are often run by teams with little conventional experience; large corporations often boast a remarkable array of established, proven and immensely talented teams.

But, contrary to some of the rhetoric being thrown around as we approach the election, this is not yet one more reason why big companies are societal blights that deserve nothing more than a quick and brutal dismantling. When harnessed correctly, the resources of these large companies are unparalleled in their ability to deliver genuinely breakthrough technologies.

Take the projects run by the infamous Google[x] lab, for instance, such as self-driving cars and 'Project Loon'. For an unproven startup to raise the requisite funds to deliver this scale of high-risk, blue-sky innovation is almost impossible, despite their remarkable potential impact. These projects are only possible in a unique environment of world-leading engineering talent, incredible financial resources, and a culture in which risk-taking and even failure is actively encouraged. I was lucky enough to spend a little time at Google HQ during a recent trip to California, and it was little surprise to find that this culture pervades throughout the company.

While this is an all-too isolated example, it's clear that large companies are now increasingly striving to emulate the flexibility of startups in various ways. While some of these methods are relatively established - buying startups, launching incubators etc - the change that to me offers the broadest promise is for companies to embrace one of the buzzwords-de-jour; the culture of the "Intrapreneur".

In brief, this is the idea of creating a culture which allows employees to be entrepreneurial within the confines of a large organisation, whereby they're given the freedom to come up with new ideas, have open conversations about them, and - crucially - given the space and platform to experiment with these ideas.

In my opinion, the crucial ingredients of this culture shift include:

  1. Idea Generation: Give employees an easy way to come up with new ideas that are actively considered by their peers and senior managers. There are some fantastic startups out there in this area who can help big companies implement this, such as 'Sideways 6' - a software platform which helps manage this entire process end-to-end, offering a way to develop what could admittedly be a maelstrom of back-of-the-napkin suggestions into a refined management tool towards potential product and strategy improvements. This can begin the process of removing the implicit reliance on "HIPPOS" (the highest paid person's opinion; one of my favourite pieces of business jargon)
  2. Experimentation: Most importantly, give employees the time, space and resources to actually try out these ideas in a real environment and to take risks that may or not come off.

  3. As a practical if extreme example on this one, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a talk given by Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently; when quizzed about how he created the Web while working at a large company - CERN - he said:

    "In the world of companies like Google offering employees 20%, I was getting 100% time."

    He went on to say that the first piece of feedback he got from his managers on this was a scribbled comment: "Vague. But exciting". Imagine how different society could be today if he had been told to get back to his 'real' work...

  4. Impact Reporting: As a logical progression of the above, find a way to allow employees to be rewarded according to their tangible impact, rather than so heavily leaning on their 'status' and experience. On a team level for instance, Virgin makes a virtue of keeping its management teams incredibly small, allowing the KPIs of specific teams to be easily tracked, and rewarded.
  5. Give employees a voice: Speaking from personal experience, there's not much more frustrating as an employee than feeling entirely disconnected from the company as a whole; to take Google again, they've come up with one of the best solutions that I've seen in their all-hands weekly "TGIF" meetings where all employees are able to voice their concerns and suggestions directly to the CEO and other Execs. With initiatives like this, even the most junior employees can have a way to contribute to the big issues their company may be facing.

Whatever the methods, what seems unarguable is that combining the dynamism of a start-up with the resources of a corporate is a uniquely potent mix, and offers the potential to drive a business culture in which companies like Google are the norm, not the exception.