Developing Internal Entrepreneurs to Innovate within your Organisation

There’s something interesting about talking about the future of business in the UK.
The majority of businesses in the UK are now SMEs (small and medium enterprises). Amongst that population, will be entrepreneurs – that is, an individual who has seen a business opportunity, made a success of it, and are positively contributing to the economy.

In a talk from Innocent Drinks, Tom Fraime shared the story of how the company started. To say it’s become the stuff of legends is a step too far, but it’s certainly a good story to share. 3 friends decided to make smoothies and sell them at a festival. At this festival they had two bins with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ written on them, with a sign saying ‘should we leave our jobs to make these smoothies?’. The ‘yes’ bin was filled, they jacked in their jobs on the Monday, and they’re now a £200 million business.

Olivier Leclerc from Alcatel-Lucent also shared their success as a business – primarily that they’re a 14 billion Euro company. For them, the challenge of business growth is about staying relevant, and innovating products that meet consumer needs.

From both, there are some useful learnings to be taken.

Firstly is how they build entrepreneurship into their recruitment. At later stages of being interviewed, you are tested on your approach to making an organisation successful. What better way to give people a sense of the culture of an organisation than to build it into the recruitment process?

I like the idea of the banana phone at Innocent. That is, you can ring the number on the bottle, and it rings on everyone’s phones in the office. It’s everyone’s responsibility to answer and talk to their drinkers. I love that as a concept. They also have a shared chill out space which spreads over two floors. They give everyone breakfast, and there’s a certain time it happens. There’s a ‘baby wall’ where pictures of all employees as a baby are posted up. I think that’s actually brilliant, because what better way to remember that the people you work for are human, than to see them at their innocent best? (see what I did there?)

In terms of innovation, they accept and take good ideas from anywhere, and importantly have the environment which is supportive of it. They have mantras like ‘it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission’. They believe that if you’re 70% sure of doing something you should do it. They believe that if you have that fortitude of belief, then you should act on it, and not listen to all the naysayers.

There were some great taglines from Tom:

“HR should be responsible for encouraging entrepreneurship and the stewardship of the organisation.”

“We are here to agitate people to take risks.”

Olivier shared some great insights into their approach to entrepreneurship at Alcatel-Lucent. A great line was that innovators don’t design a product to be successful, it’s nearly always accidental and unintended.

In their organisation, they realised that giving people on training on how to be entrepreneurs was the wrong approach to take. Instead they put a call out for ideas, and the ones selected are then developed into project teams with someone from Marketing and Finance to help develop the concept into something tangible. I think that’s great investment. Here’s the really interesting thing. They’re not allowed to do this on work time. Why? Because inventors very rarely develop their products in dedicated free time, it tends to happen when time allows, and when you’re facing constraints of various kinds. I’m not sure I agree with the thinking, but I can see the merits of doing this.

The other interesting thing they do is specifically link the success of the project teams to their corporate strategy. Each team is tasked with making revenue, and that revenue feeds into one distinct income stream for the organisation. This works on a number of levels. People feel they’re actually contributing to the success of the organisation as opposed to fulfilling a role. They become automatic ambassadors of the company because they’re doing something which has potential to make revenue for them. Engagement just happens because you’re asking people to commit to activities to improve the way the business works.

A key learning they had was that these ideas that were submitted had to pass through an ‘innovation board’. This board would vote and the most popular ideas got the investment and backing of the organisation. What they realised though was that this actually goes against the idea of innovation and entrepreneurship. To overcome this, individuals were then allowed to champion an idea and accept the risk of that idea on themselves.

I enjoyed both these perspectives about internal entrepreneurship (or intrapreneurs), as they give a cultural perspective on how to make it happen, and practical perspective. We’re all very aware we’re in times of turmoil and uncertainty. No organisation can afford to sit on its laurels, and what’s important for me is that the HR/L&OD functions champion and help drive the fresh thinking many organisations are capable of.