Intrapreneurship Failures are an Inside Job

By: RLL Network Contributor - Jonathan Jeckell

Clay Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma demonstrated that many innovation failures are not the fault of senior level leadership.   Workers in organizations often complain about a lack of innovation in their organization or the lack of support from leadership, but often it is the organization itself that resists change.  As Christensen pointed out, the resources, processes, and values of the organization turns everyone throughout the organization back on the established trajectory.

But worse, some of the very people calling for innovation the loudest fail to do anything substantive to bring their ideas to life.  In the first place, the idea has to actually be a good idea.  Secondly, it has to be a good idea for the organization it will reside within.  Thirdly, it must be concrete and specific enough to plan and implement it.  Finally, depending on the type of idea, the organization might embrace it or fight it, as described by Christensen. 

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I’ve also personally seen great ideas that should’ve been an easy win disintegrate when the champion did nothing to see the dream they fought for become a reality.  In one organization, the senior leadership contracted a startup accelerator to take a cross-section of the staff through the lean startup method.  When the smoke cleared, we had five excellent, feasible ideas that had a lot of excitement behind them, and the top three had pledges of nearly unlimited support from the senior leadership, to include bypassing the normal budgetary cycles and other requirements to access those resources.  One of these groups discovered their idea had an off-the-shelf solution and only required a negligible licensing fee and clearance from the IT department.

Within months all of these ideas were dead in the water despite the persistent enthusiasm by the top leadership.  A few of the champions were still pushing forward, but none of the ideas were close to being realized, to include the easiest one.  Even when all of the legwork was done for the easiest innovation to implement, it still went nowhere.  Not long after, the champions of the other winning ideas had left the organization and all of the ideas were effectively dead in the water.

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 What happened?  Although the top leadership supported the ideas, the administrative people responsible for accommodating them were bewildered how to carve out the resources and procedures to provide that support.  It was a constant tug of war that took a toll on the champions and may have factored into their decision to leave the organization, when they had been some of the most energetic and enthusiastic proponents of the company before this.  Each of the champions were also in very busy, responsible positions commensurate with their drive and abilities.  They were already fully committed and now an idea they cared about became a heavy burden when they returned to their day jobs.  Coming back from that startup weekend may have been like waking from a dream into a nightmare as they tried to juggle the responsibilities they were accountable to perform for an unproven idea they developed which must have seemed like less of a good idea by the moment. 

So technically this brings us back to Christensen because the processes of the organization didn’t change, even if the senior leadership paved a path for them otherwise.  The things they had to do to keep from getting fired got in the way.  Google famously has a 20% rule for its employees to work on side projects like this, but that may be more myth than reality.  In any case, the more mature and competitive an organization is, the harder it will be to carve this kind of time out for innovative projects, particularly for the people the organization most relies upon to win.


So what can be done?  Firstly, depending on the type of idea, it may require a spinoff independent of the parent organization to succeed, as pointed out by Christensen.  Secondly, most good ideas take more than one person to push through.  In each of these cases, the rest of the team melted away back to their day jobs too, leaving the champion to fight on alone.  Senior leadership should’ve taken volunteers or appointed members to a team to make a disciplined implementation plan.  This endeavor should be officially recognized in their evaluation process as part of the job they are accountable for performing, even if that means alleviating some of their other responsibilities.  

Lastly, the innovation needs to be wired into the organization properly from the beginning so that members who work within it are properly recognized by the organization.  A multitude of military innovations utterly failed because officers were taken away from established career paths, even under the tutelage of top leadership, only to be purged from the service later because their time outside established positions in their career field was not properly valued by promotion boards. 

Change becomes increasingly hard as an organization matures and the more fiercely they must compete.  Organizations in a competitive environment tend to optimize their resources against the opportunity and their competitors, so innovation and change off that trajectory become increasingly difficult and improbable.  Making a leap to another opportunity, particularly an unproven opportunity, often seems like a gamble when the same resources could be applied to more tangible and proven results.  But when those leaps are successful, they can create entirely new opportunities for organizations who can see them all the way through.


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Chase Friedman