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The Challenge of Intra-preneurship

There is a deep irony at work in most of the companies and institutions where our readers spend their careers.

These are organizations that ask for (and in most cases, desperately need) more innovation, more creativity and more risk-taking on the part of their managers.

At the same time, their own business models force the same managers to spend most of their time dealing with rigid budgets, worrying about weekly financial "flash reports," hitting FTE ratios and " pushing paper" via endless demands for internal reports, memos, proposals and justifications.

To improve one's products, services and ability to change, organizations need to focus on cultivating a culture of innovation. But established methods of management control almost invariably discourage that from happening.

They do not reward risk-taking, do not finance what should be considered "internal R&D," and subsidize the status quo. Yet, when new budgets are established, "stretch goals" are always justified with the rationale that they can be reached through "continuous quality improvement."

It's no wonder that most end up, not with quality improvement, but with bureaucracy, burnout and mediocrity.

The remedy is to recognize that in large organizations it will always be necessary to have budgets, standards and performance plans. But that management also has a responsibility to cultivate leaders with the kind of vision that can create change through innovation.

Such individuals are intrapreneurs— people who pursue new ideas in spite of significant obstacles, who will continuously work and re-work their ideas until they succeed, and who are motivated by the challenge of building new ventures within organizations with the same enthusiasm some might have when striking out on their own.

Business theorist Gifford Pinchot coined this term in the 1980s as a shorthand form for intra-corporate entrepreneur. He also observed that " Innovation is more than creativity. It is the creation and bringing into widespread use of a new product, service, process or system—from the first glimmer of an idea to successful implementation and exploitation."

True intrapreneurs are a rare breed. They are dreamers, but dreamers with the persistence, operational smarts and drive to turn their dreams into functioning realities.

What are the characteristics of intrapreneurial organizations? Here are some of the traits Pinchot cites in his 1999 book, Intrapreneuring in Action:

  • They look for creative ways to reward employees for good ideas.
  • They encourage people to speak their minds and give them freedom to act.
  • They expect their employees to "live with their customers," until they are in a position "to go beyond what customers say they want to what the customer will demand once they see it."
  • They encourage "internal competition" but do so constructively, sharing lessons learned "without labeling people in the process."
  • Because innovation almost never goes according to plan, innovative organizations "bet on teams of people who can fix things fast when they don't work as expected."
  • They seek to generate "beta" versions of new products or systems quickly and then seek customer involvement to improve them.

Pinchot also emphasizes that it's important to distinguish between real intrapreneurs and "promoters."

Promoters "seek to innovate primarily as a route to advancement...but don't have the inclination or practical skills to roll up their sleeves and work on achieving it. Real intrapreneurs find intrinsic value in the visions they pursue. They will often deliver good results even if their original plan proves wrong."

Noncommercial foodservice is a fertile environment in which to encourage this approach to innovation. The very things that distinguish it from the commercial sector—frequent menu changes, flexible station concepts, the freedom that arises from not being seen as a "core" business of the larger organization—provide a license for innovation if directors choose to encourage it.

We'll be talking more about why this is and how to capitalize on it in coming months, and will be making it a major theme in FM's 2006 IDEAS Conference next May.

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