Who are the innovators in your company and how can you find them?

Innovators within large organisations differ in some important aspects from the traditional entrepreneur. Companies trying to unleash their entrepreneurial talent, therefore, need to look out for people that display these traits.

May 12th, 2021

When we think about successful innovators, we often picture a hard working entrepreneur building an empire out of a garage in Silicon Valley. While there is certainly some validity to this narrative, the fact is that in most cases it doesn’t hold true. As we highlighted in a previous article, research suggests that the majority of innovation actually comes from within corporations. But who if not the entrepreneurs come up with new innovative ideas and bring them to life? 

In this article we will get to the bottom of this question and give you actionable insights on how you can identify and nourish innovators in your company. 


Who are the innovators in your company and what do they have in common?

It is tempting to aim to attract successful “entrepreneurs” to drive innovation in your company. After all, corporations depend on entrepreneurship to stay relevant and competitive. However, in our experience it needs different kinds of people to prevail and thrive in a corporate environment. They have been often coined “intrapreneurs” or corporate entrepreneurs. While they share certain traits such as innovativeness, market awareness and proactivity with the traditional entrepreneur, they exhibit three distinct characteristics that uniquely qualify them to be successful in large organisations. 


1) Calculated risk

Innovators are often portrayed as big risk takers. In the case of entrepreneurs it is certainly true. Intrapreneurs on the other hand are more calculated. One reason is that large companies are often more risk averse. In order to excel, intrapreneurs need to take the company’s risk profile into account and find creative ways to maximise the upside of their ideas while hedging and protecting them from potential downsides. 


2) Political acumen

Through our work as innovation consultancy and our online innovation magazine - Inside Innovation , we have been in touch with a lot of intrapreneurs from a broad range of companies. One thing that has become apparent is that all of them have a good understanding of corporate politics and know how to use it to their advantage. The success of the idea doesn’t just depend on if customers embrace it but also that it aligns with the company’s strategy and motivation.  Therefore the ability to find support for the idea depends more on political work than just a great pitch. Successful intrapreneurs know how to play the corporate game, find help from different parts of the organisation and if needed understand how to circumvent long corporate processes and customs.


3) Motivation

One question that often arises is why intrapreneurs don’t just start their own business with potentially much higher financial return and compensation? Intrapreneurs certainly have a strong dedication and passion to solve an important problem/need, a sense of purpose of building something new and  realise their idea. What clearly distinguishes their motivation from entrepreneurs is that they seem much more risk averse. They often prefer the security of being employed and see advancing their career and serving a greater purpose as the main payoff. 

Attributes of internal innovators


How to identify intrapreneurs

Since intrapreneurs can come from all parts of the organisation, it is not an easy task to identify them. We have worked with people coming from technical backgrounds venturing into innovation projects, as well as project managers diving into technically advanced idea development. Young employees, new to the company as well as highly experienced ones specialised in leading new projects. Admittedly, highly dedicated intrapreneurs will find a way to get noticed. However, in our experience there is a significant dormant mass of untapped potential that just waits to be awakened. 

An effective method to “lure” them out is giving them an opportunity to showcase their ideas and motivation. Innovation campaigns or challenges have proven to be an incredibly good way to identify and engage with employees that have the right attitudes and traits. It encourages potential intrapreneurs to share and test their ideas, find a team to support them and a chance to get backing from management. We do this by creating an environment outside of regular operating procedures and with real resources behind. This means should their idea get selected, intrapreneurs can quickly move on and start working more exclusively on their solution. Another benefit of the innovation challenge and campaign is the momentum, fast decision-making and the backing from the top. All key factors to engage intrapreneurs. 



How intrapreneurs thrive

Working with our clients we have seen and experienced how individual intrapreneurs might struggle to work on their idea alone. Therefore, we strongly advocate for surrounding them with a team that complements their skills for support. A well rounded team is often equally if not more important than the idea itself.  In all innovation challenges we thus introduced the concept of “self-appointed teams”. It is in short a digital supported process that facilitates the formation of idea teams. People that are equally passionate about the idea and have the necessary skills can, with the help of the Nosco platform , reach out to the idea author and apply to join the team. 

In our experience, intrapreneurs really thrive if you set clear goals and expectations for the team but give them the freedom to operate within those boundaries. When highly motivated teams work in agile ways - validating and testing their idea with short feedback loops - we see great results in moving ideas fast ahead, “unfreezing” your innovation pipeline.

To sum it up, innovators within large organisations differ in some important aspects from the traditional entrepreneur. Companies trying to unleash their entrepreneurial talent, therefore, need to look out for people that display these traits. A good way to identify them is by running an innovation challenge or idea campaigns. They provide a structured and fast approach to finding people with good ideas, test their motivation and attitudes as well as surrounding them with the right team and environment to bring their ideas to life faster.