Employee Motivation December 19, 2017

Intrapreneurship: the answer to talent retention?


Workplace loyalty is under increasing threat: just 8% of UK employees feel involved and enthusiastic at work, 19% are actively disengaged, and one third expect to leave their job in the next 12 months. These disengaged hordes are the zombies of your business.

To get the best out of talented employees, and to prevent them from leaving, organisations must find ways to increase engagement. This begins with an understanding of what’s driving their discontent.

Today’s employees have demands that reach far beyond monetary compensation - a fact that has been recognised by Vistage members: whilst 58% reward top performing employees financially, non-monetary rewards such as public recognition, promotions, and extra time off play a big part in reward strategies. Employees want to innovate. They want to grow. They want their voice heard. Stories of regular people finding success by starting a business or through freelancing and telecommuting abound in the media. Leaps forward in digital technology make it easy to eschew outmoded working practices: the barriers of entry into more entrepreneurial career paths have never been lower. While most people prefer the security of full-time contracted work, it’s tempting to join the exodus.

Companies who are slow to act in cultivating an environment where entrepreneurial spirit can flourish run the risk of losing their most talented people. So the question is, how do you inspire enterprising workers and get them to stick around?

You don’t fight entrepreneurial thinking: you cultivate it by creating intrapreneurs. Here’s why, and how.

What is an intrapreneur?

According to Gallup, engaged workers feel a sense of ownership of the business and are involved in efforts to drive their organisation forward through innovation - attributes that come with the territory in entrepreneurship, but more rarely in employment. Under continued financial pressure, the imperative for many companies is to generate productivity by encouraging employees to perform the same, highly prescribed tasks repeatedly and ever more efficiently: consequently, time for reflection and innovation is viewed as an unnecessary indulgence.

Businesses who buck this trend see entrepreneurial thinking as an asset, not an extravagance or as a negative. They understand the value of innovation in building a competitive, forward thinking company that is agile and progressive in its actions. They cultivate an environment where employees are free to express their ideas and where intrapreneurs thrive.

An intrapreneur is an employee who is both willing and able to develop innovative and valuable concepts within their workplace. They have the freedom to think, create, and act inventively. As with any innovation-led activity, there are risks involved, but without risk, there can be no growth. We are conditioned to fear failure from a young age, but finding a way to embrace failure as a learning opportunity allows us to reap huge benefits. Encouraging these behaviours is a win for everyone: employees feel happier and grow at work, loyalty increases, and employers reap the benefits of new ideas. 

How can we encourage intrapreneurship?

Creating an environment that fosters intrapreneurship requires a cultural shift in three areas.

Firstly, balance automation with autonomy: research shows that having control and ownership over our work is more important than money. Additionally, autonomy is necessary for entrepreneurial thinking: without a sense of freedom to act, ideas are stifled.

This leads us to the next ingredient: creativity. An element of challenge is needed in order to find unusual solutions to tricky problems. The work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shows that we enter flow - a state of engrossment in our work - when we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Amazing things happen when we are in flow: we create new, valuable ideas and push the boundaries of what’s possible. Consequently, setting up an environment where employees are able to work in a way that best suits them is fundamental to fostering intrapreneurship. Allowing employees to work distraction-free - by encouraging focus, and supporting flexible working - helps to achieve this.

However, in order to meet the demands of challenging situations, employees must also have access to skills development. Creating a culture of continual learning by providing access to the right opportunities, capabilities, and environment is the final vital component to entrepreneurial thinking. Other than outright boredom, nothing kills engagement quicker than asking employees to do things beyond their capability.

Organisations don’t need to wait for the perfect moment to introduce these cultural shifts. In fact, leaders who fail to act quickly on disengagement run the risk of allowing a toxic business culture to take hold. It’s possible to implement certain interventions quickly and cost-effectively to move the needle on creating a sense of entrepreneurial spirit. Here are three ideas to consider.

1. Hold a hackathon

Hackathons were created by tech firms to encourage coders and developers to collaborate on problem solving: the Facebook ‘like’ button came out of such an event. Nowadays, all sorts of companies hold hackathons to solve a myriad of difficult or interesting business problems. Over the course of a day or more, thousands of ideas are generated, typically using a simple online platform.

To be successful, a hackathon must present a clear question or problem to solve. It must be promoted effectively ahead of time, ensuring that every employee is aware of the event and knows how to access it. Ideas should not be critiqued during the event: for every great idea there will be tens of bad ones, but the point is to let the creative process flow and to analyse the outputs afterward. After the event, follow up communications should be transparent and timely: asking your employees to give their energy to an event only to receive no feedback about how ideas will be implemented is highly disengaging. 

2. Create an intrapreneurial development programme

Ideas generated by hackathons can present a second intrapreneurial opportunity. For aspiring future leaders, having the chance to work on a real-life business problem is a great way to enhance their development. Give them support through mentorship and ensure they have access to relevant learning opportunities.

One CEO who saw the benefits of allowing a talented employee to work on a real-life innovation project was Norio Ohga - former CEO of Sony. Ken Kutagari was working as an electrical engineer for Sony in 1975 when he bought his daughter a Nintendo. Unimpressed with the sound quality, he believed he could significantly improve the gaming system. Ohga recognised the value of allowing Kutagari to consult for Nintendo: the skills he picked up enabled him to lead the efforts in building the PlayStation and eventually he became CEO. Sony now dominates the worldwide console market with a 57% share.

3. Build a learning culture

Putting learning at the heart of company culture is vital to retaining talent and encouraging intrapreneurship. Personalised, relevant interventions delivered in an accessible, engaging way are much more effective than formal classroom training. Many top universities offer free or low-cost online courses in the form of MOOCs (massive open online courses): you can learn about strategic innovation with Vanderbilt University, study intrapreneurship with the University of Maryland, and learn how to be creative in business with the University of Texas. These self-led courses are a great way to give employees autonomy over their learning.

 Intrapreneurship is more than just a tool for innovation: it’s a cultural shift towards building an autonomous, creative, loyal workforce. It will get you better business results and turn your talented employees into highly engaged trailblazers. Finding ways to encourage autonomy, creativity, and learning in everyday working life is key to fostering an innovative environment. And who knows? You might learn a thing or two about innovation yourself along the way.

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