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Bright Ideas

Getting Beyond Bright Ideas to Achieve Business Success

Dec. 22, 2020
How can you cultivate intrapreneurship in a large organization?

In the earlier part of my career, a very bright engineer asked me why our company keeps buying technology via acquisitions of other companies—usually start-ups that have just become profitable. Why are we not commercializing the organic R&D work? I am often surrounded by people with lots of great inventive ideas. But is this enough in this day and age to propel us forward to gain market share or establish a foothold where we see an opening?

Repeatedly, we mistakenly equate invention with innovation. As American entrepreneur Gifford Pinchot III eloquently stated in his book, Intrapreneuring: “Innovation does not mean invention. Invention is the act of genius in creating a new concept for a potentially useful new device or service. In innovation, that is just the beginning. When the invention is done, the second half of innovation begins: turning the new idea into a business success.”

Often, the very same people with the inventive new ideas do not seem to have the hunger and drive to see their ideas through enough to create a new business. Projects started often drag out for a long time, and there is no sense of urgency, nor a realistic understanding of the markets they are trying to serve. I believe this phenomenon becomes more acute as a company grows from an aging start-up into a large enterprise, as innovators often get caught in the corporate bureaucracy. To make matters worse, most public companies’ boards put more focus on the shareholders, who tend to emphasize short-term gain.

Results from a 2018 Harvard Business Review survey of 5000 company board members across the globe indicate that, for the majority of boards, innovation ranks fifth after concerns such as attracting and retaining top talent and the regulatory environment, with just 21% believing technology trends are a major strategic challenge. When asked which areas of their board’s processes were effective, directors responded as follows:

  • 70% - staying current on the company
  • 69% - compliance
  • 66% - financial planning
  • 55% - risk management
  • 42% - innovation

Looking Inward and Building Outward

A term first introduced in a 1976 paper written by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot, the word “intrapreneurship” was used to describe a system that removes the bureaucracy stifling new ideas in a large corporation to enable it to behave like an entrepreneur and a nimble, agile startup. Today, according to Intrapreneur.com—which is powered by Pinchot’s Seattle-based Pinchot & Company—the concept is widely used by Fortune 100 companies as well as many international companies and non-profits.

There are many examples of intrapreneurial discoveries in large organizations, from Sony’s PlayStation to Sun Microsystems’ launch of Java programming language in 1995. But given the challenges of size, rigid structures, hierarchies and processes today, innovation in large organizations—which is often obtained externally through acquisition of startups or emerging companies—remains relatively lower on the priority list.

Creating an Intrapreneurial Environment and Culture

Since Pinchot introduced intrapreneurship into the business vernacular, countless books have been written and keynotes delivered expressing why businesses should embrace intrapreneurship, and how it can be done. Pinchot himself developed his own guidelines, entitling them The Intrapreneur’s Ten Commandments:

1. Come to work each day willing to be fired.

2. Circumvent any orders aimed at stopping your dream.

3. Do any job needed to make your project work, regardless of your job description.

4. Find people to help you.

5. Follow your intuition about the people you choose and work only with the best.

6. Work underground as long as you can--publicity triggers the corporate immune mechanism.

7. Never bet on a race unless you are running in it.

8. Remember it is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

9. Be true to your goals, but realistic about the ways to achieve them.

10. Honor your sponsors.

As chief technology officer responsible for innovation at Advanced Energy (AE), I would add the following to the leadership team’s list in order to support those who embody this intrapreneurial spirit:

11. Democratize the ideation process.

We often use the word “diversity” to indicate differences in gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status. However, in the area of innovation, diversity of thought is also important. One way to encourage and democratize ideation is not to assume that only people in leadership positions have the best ideas, and everyone else just follow orders to execute.  Another way is not to assume that the experts’ solutions are the only options. Lastly, the most damaging statement that can be made to a young aspiring innovator is to tell them that they are wasting their time.  After all, how do we know if we’ve succeeded if we’ve never failed?

12. Give everyone permission to be bold and risk failure without the fear of penalty

As a leadership team, one way to give permission to be bold is to make sure we “got their back” when our teams go out on a limb to try new ideas that have not been proven. Make the failures a learning experience as opposed to a finger-pointing exercise.  Often through the analysis of failure, new and better ideas emerge and teams becomes stronger.  It is imperative that we as leaders do not squelch the enthusiasm and boldness of those who dared to take the risks.

13. Collaborate with others who share your interest and passion, and who can bring fresh perspective, including people and organizations outside your own company.

The tried-and-true collaborations pre-commercial are with local academic institutions. Such collaboration is a breeding ground for innovation, bringing together the best combination of real world application and focus of the industry partner; deep theoretical and experimental practices of leading academics; and fresh new talent of the students. AE has established several of these partnerships in our state but also internationally too.

14. Celebrate milestones and successes along the way.

This bullet point should not warrant much explanation other than to say that everyone needs encouragement on the long road of intrapreneurial pursuits.

Playing the Anticipation Game

In the industries that we serve, including semiconductor manufacturers and industrial coatings, innovation and customer experience have brought us customers in the U.S. and abroad As we move forward, embedding self-diagnostic, self-calibration and self-learning real-time controls and digital twin into our products and solutions is no longer just R&D work. As we move into the next industrial revolution, it will be essential to anticipate potential customer problems and develop ways to solve them before they occur. More importantly, as history shows, every business must foster an intrapreneurial culture, or risk elimination in a high-stakes game where the rules are always changing.

Dr. Isabel Yang is chief technology officer and senior vice president of Advanced Energy, responsible for leading the execution of the company’s global technology vision and strategy. Prior to joining AE, Dr. Yang served as the vice president of corporate strategy, and VP of strategy and operations for IBM Research, where she focused on driving leading-edge innovations in such areas as artificial intelligence, healthcare solutions, and high-performance computing.

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