I've helped design, worked with, visited, and oftentimes also rebooted many intrapreneurship programs since 2007. The most central and undiscussed design choice for these programs is that one employee (or a small team) will be their project's internal leader. With some common-sense rules and as light reporting as possible, they will be given the freedom to explore a new opportunity as "entrepreneurs."

Now, I'm not going to discuss to which extent you can or cannot give freedom to take risks from within the shelter of a large corporation or what is the real incentive for an entrepreneur that will not make millions on this opportunity in any case to play this game. No.

I want to pinpoint that no one really questions the one intrapreneur team, one project premise. After years of thinking about this and different tryouts, I came to believe it's a major blunder of such programs.

The key reason is that a small team of intrapreneurs with some degree of freedom will never want to kill its project after a year of working on it. They might know it sucks, not like working on it anymore or being delusional, but they will push through for as long as possible. And as an organization, if you have hard go/no-go deadlines and just say NO, what happens with this team? Do they go back to their marketing department or assembly line and pretend to fit back in the usual top-down decision-making processes? If they're any good, they'll leave the company within a year (two if there's a pandemic going on).  

The solution is deceptively simple: never let an intrapreneur team works on a single project. My default rule is now: one team, five projects, among which two of them can be variations of the others.

This is usually the right balance, and it achieves five critical things:

  • Remove the affective sunk costs around the one and only project, which dramatically reduces demotivation when things fail (and they will, or you're not trying to innovate hard enough).
  • Puts back the focus on exploration for the core business, not trying to outsmart a powerful business unit because you had "an idea" last night.
  • Forces useful post-mortems of dead-ends and make them valuable for the team acting as a proper scouting unit (the real ROI of all this in the end).
  • Keeps top management clear-minded about the level of uncertainties we're dealing with in an intrapreneurship program.  
  • Create more optionality with the same amount of resources when you go from 6 projects a year (that will fail anyway) to 30 explorations (that will uncover critical opportunities).  

As I said, it's deceptively simple. It's all about going from a BS "we're all entrepreneurs at heart" narrative to building a fiercely dedicated team of scouts and explorers that will productively push the boundaries of your current core business.  

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