How Intuit Built a Better Support System for Intrapreneurs15 April, 2016 / Articles
Most companies claim to support entrepreneurial behavior — but their employees are not so sure. The research speaks volumes: Only 20% of employees in an Accenture study said their managers encourage entrepreneurial ideas. Another survey showed that 70% of successful entrepreneurs developed their big idea while working at an established organization and then left to commercialize it on their own.
According to Vijay Anand, senior vice president at Intuit, it’s not a lack of desire that blocks companies from supporting entrepreneurship; it’s just the way they are wired. According to Anand, “Large organizations are necessarily focused on running the business and managing for continuity. That’s not always a bad thing, but it seldom leaves much space for new ways of working.”
That aligns with what I’ve seen. A number of the companies I advise are still in the beginning stages of developing support systems to nurture the entrepreneurs within their walls. Organizations struggle with two things in particular. First, they have a hard time supporting the risk-taking that is so fundamental to learning, and ultimately to innovation. Second, corporate culture and structural barriers disincent intrapreneurs from “owning” their ideas (e.g., time to experiment is not protected, decisions about whether to move forward with an experiment are dictated by managers rather than those who initiate the idea).
I would argue that the key is to create an organizational design that is flexible enough to enable creativity and build momentum yet firm enough to keep intrapreneurs on track. Not surprisingly, Intuit has this one down to a science in a number of ways:
Make it easy to conduct the first experiment. When an Intuit employee steps forward with a product or business idea, they are encouraged to create a prototype to test their hypothesis — with just one customer. Not just any one customer, but one who is hypothesized to be well served by the solution. If that single customer uses the solution and recommends it to others, then the sponsor is guided to scale it up to a larger cohort of customers in order to collect more data.
One example of this approach in action is a product idea called Shop Owner, launched by an Intuit employee in Bangalore. He observed that rural-area store clerks were losing track of sales by relying on their memory to quote prices and create handwritten sales slips. Most did not have on-site computers or cash registers with integrated accounting features, but nearly all had smart phones. His simple solution: an app that bundled point of sale accounting, simple inventory management, and printed receipts. Based on that plan, he and his team not only created a prototype but also tested it — in less than a week. Their first customer? The café located within Intuit’s own Bangalore office. It was a hit. After that, the prototype was deemed good enough to scale-up for further testing and discovery.
According to Anand, this “unit of one” approach enables a great many ideas, like this one, to be tested quickly and on the cheap. In addition, collecting data using existing customers provides Intuit with insights that can be leveraged beyond the first experiment, and keeps collaboration front of mind for intrapreneurs.
Add structure to unstructured time. Like many companies, Intuit encourages employees to use a percentage of their on-the-clock time to develop relevant side projects. Yet oftentimes that mindset isn’t enough to coax people away from their everyday work. According to Intuit’s Jeff Zias, Unstructured Time and Grassroots Innovation Leader, the company needed to go further and “inject some structure into that unstructured time.”
One way it achieves this is through periodic multiday hackathons where teams of developers present pet projects and compete to tackle specific challenges aligned with the company’s broader strategy (e.g., easy, fast tax return completion) in exchange for prizes and recognition. Adding this measure of structure not only cultivates a powerful ecosystem by bringing intrapreneurs together in one place, allowing for cross-functional interaction, but also allows the organization to keep innovation aimed at themes that Intuit wants to investigate.
Support, don’t control. Another way to encourage intrapreneurs is by empowering them to make some of the big decisions on their own. At Intuit, it’s up to the individual sponsor to decide if and when to pull the plug on a project or prototype. And if they do decide to back off? They’re encouraged to keep learning and pivot to another hypothesized solution, as opposed to giving up entirely. (Intuit founder Scott Cook calls this “falling in love with the problem, not the solution.” ) Allowing individuals, not management,, to develop the data driving the decisions as to whether to cut or continue, removes the stigma from failure. And pivoting presents people with another chance to solve the problem they are passionate about while the sense of autonomy increases engagement.
Value “Return on Intelligence.” Science is a crucial component in guiding any entrepreneurial effort. Intuit looks at a number of metrics including customer satisfaction, gross margin, and net promoter score. But another metric I suggest companies consider is return on intelligence. Every idea tested with customers helps fine tune the solution – or indicate what not to do next time. Every new attempt at change delivers data about how to become better. In addition, looking at learning as a kind of currency creates a corporate culture that doesn’t fear failure. And when these insights are shared across the organization (rather than swept under the carpet), others can benefit from this learning – helping to build a corporate culture willing to test ideas and take smart risks.
Many companies now are rewarding employees for failures that leads to learning: Both Google’s lab X and at WPP’s Grey Group in New York incentivize failures that provide insight. This ethos resonates with Zias, who says, “I don’t think of it as failing. It’s more like you’ve quickly disproven your own hypothesis — which is awesome.”
Create supporting stakeholders. At Intuit, intrapreneurs are not left alone to sink or swim. The company has multiple stakeholders who support project sponsors. First, they have a number of individuals whose exclusive job is coaching and encouraging innovation (Zias is one of them). Next, the organization’s innovation catalysts are trained volunteers who spend 10% of their time guiding other employees to use design principles to create products that improve customers’ lives. Finally, managers across Intiut are expressly incentivized to recognize and support entrepreneurial behavior and experimentation.
All of this organizational support, cultural reinforcement, and bottom up encouragement for intrapreneurship is more than just interesting, it’s also instructive. The beauty of Intuit’s approach is that it puts intrapreneurs and their particular passions at the center of the equation. Yet, Intuit’s model is but one in many. The bottom line? If you build the right sandbox, intrapreneurs will dive into it: create space and structure for entrepreneurship and you will keep many of your most creative people engaged in forging the future of the company.
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