Spark Intrapreneur Ecosystem ModelOne of the things that’s been keeping me busy in 2015 has been the formation of a corporate innovation lab (referred to by the client as their i-lab) – a core part of the intrapreneurship model – it’s been easy; it’s been tricky; it’s been a challenge – importantly, it’s been an education.

As I hand over the running of the lab to the client’s team, I can now reflect on the advice consultancy training and technology that was introduced as well as the different tools deployed. So, edging towards 2016, it seems a good time to touch on the lessons learned and to prepare for the next assignment with public or private sector organizations interested in building their intrapreneur ecosystem.

Whilst this innovation lab was developed for a UK public sector organization, it is a template that can flex to any type of entity, regardless of size (employee headcount or revenues), geographical spread, or sector. Whether it is a public or private sector enterprise, innovation lies at the heart of it – but it calls for the ability to seek out and embrace change, shift the way you operate, embrace the attitudes of a startup… and articulate results back to stakeholders. Intrapreneurship is, theoretically, simple – but within this simplicity is a complexity – a paradoxical model that requires strong leadership, supportive management and empowered teams.


Successful entities operate well in the context of certainty – knowing the trends, having consistency, following a process. Leaders who have grown up with a certain type of business will be inculcated in various practices which, in time, develop a core mindset. So, with leaders seeing their markets being subject to disruption from tech-savvy startups, the choice is to be disrupted or the disruptor.

Accepting a need for change, how will your enterprise go about building the environment for innovation in 2016?


It’s common when exploring intrapreneurship to wrestle with a few things: what are the corporate objectives (including ‘are they future-facing & future-proof?’); who are the stakeholders to support the initiatives; what will be prioritised.

In agreeing to create a P&L-driven laboratory, there are rules and guidelines to help frame its work.

Rules of engagement

The corporate innovation lab needs to be a P&L-oriented business unit with a budget and financial targets – if your intrapreneurial idea is going to be the next WhatsApp then that’s great – but let’s be honest, a lot of ‘innovations’ don’t move the needle. This isn’t to say that, in isolation, they should be discounted but the people running the lab do need to be showing a strong financial ROI along the way.

  • What can be explored / supported by the main lab (revenue, market share, internal process, organizational design, etc.);
  • What is the threshold for an idea (e.g. financial ROI) – can this be addressed in a LABx environment;
  • What types of product / service are you looking to develop;
  • Does the lab have a business plan (including marketing, events, operations, etc.);
  • What revenue streams are you looking to achieve;
  • What budget will be allocated to the prime ideas (research and build);
  • Is the lab for new ideas only – or the new centre point for current and future ideas;
  • Can the lab revisit historic and rejected ideas for a new perspective;
  • How will the lab go about developing ideas (e.g. Design Thinking, LEAN, etc.);
  • How will lessons learned be captured and tracked (e.g. will you be using an Idea Management Toolkit)

Strong leadership

It’s great to have an enthusiastic leader – someone who wholly buys into the idea of innovation and intrapreneurship but it has to go further than this. As an example, if your organization runs innovation weekends to capture new ideas and introduce people to rapid prototyping and commercial awareness… what next? I use a 30-60-90 model akin to LinkedIn but a common issue is whether or not time can be allocated to people with the ideas – your leader needs to be strong enough to release people from their day job for a wider ROI.

[pullquote] Intrapreneurship is far more than just the corporate innovation lab – the lab is the mechanism for converting ideas to reality but, behind this, are such issues as win-win culture, conflict resolution, organizational design, staff deployment, commercial awareness, corporate resistance, etc. Intrapreneurship is transformational and strong change leadership is essential.

Professional Friends

I remember (many years’ ago) when the CEO of a tyre company wanted to see how they could improve the speed with which they changed a customer’s tyres. Rather than look within the organization or even engage with a management consultancy, he contacted a Formula One motor company and took his management team to see how they went about the process of a tyre change. He accepted that 15 minutes to change 4 tyres was quick… but F1 can do that in 3 seconds.

Be prepared to bring in external viewpoints – and be prepared to engage with contrary parties who will push your buttons, annoy you, disagree with you… and help to kick you out of old thinking. Professional friends are people who are inside and outside of your organization but understand aspects of your specialism. When was the last time that you outsourced a project to a local college or university?

I know of one public sector organization that gave over its social media strategy to a secondary school as teenagers had a better grasp of the technology than local government!

Build the lab brand

This is more important than you think: we respond to brands and logos and it is essential that the corporate innovation lab has the same treatment. In my experience, you need to build a real-world and virtual model – a reflection of each other – as some people will love the cloud-based, multi-platform technology but so many people want (and need) physicality. In this case, give the lab a brand: color, style, logo, name… whatever it takes to help it sit within the vernacular of employees. If you are to help the lab to become part of general thinking and process, it needs to be accessible.

If we talk about a red square with a yellow ‘m’ in the middle, the majority of people think of McDonalds; if it’s a ‘swoosh’ we have Nike. We also have “I’m lovin’ it” and “Just do it” respectively.

A case in point is that the corporate innovation lab is referred to as ‘the engine room’ by one client and ‘i-lab’ by another… it’s what fits with your culture, your aspirations, your mindset. Make sure that the brand is built by your own people – you are constantly looking to avoid imposing the law on your teams.

Importantly, as ideas progress through the lab, they will need their own branding to help with clear demarcation both internally and (ultimately) externally.

Make space

I’ve written a lot about this, as well as advised public sector organizations about it: use your assets and, specifically, use your space. Surplus / dead space is not working for your enterprise – either rent it out to entrepreneurs, develop a co-working space or, specific to the lab, set aside 2-3,000 square feet (c. 600-900 square meters) and build a branded space that lets your people know that there is a commitment to intrapreneurship.

Use the space for workshops, mentoring, intrapreneur meetings but, at some point, don’t be frightened to let entrepreneurs hot-desk in there (it’s a great way to introduce external thinking as well as identify / nurture ideas that are aligned to what your business is all about). Take a look at Wayra at Telefonica or Nike’s Accelerator – bringing people in from outside.

New people also create a new vibe – an culture is a key aspect of intrapreneurship (not to mention a source of revenue for your lab’s P&L).

Be smart with technology

Use it… but don’t let it use you. For rapid development and prototyping, there are plenty of tools out there ranging from Wunderlist for quick-and-dirty task assignment and management to Slack for real-time in-team messaging but let’s not forget Dropbox, Hootsuite, Trello… you get the general idea. The key point is that you want to create a startup and so you need a startup mindset – no startup will spend big money on an enterprise solution.

Saying that, there’s a definite need for cups of coffee, blank walls and a few Sharpies – step away from technology as it may be guiding you down alleyways as part of it’s software setup and open your mind and the conversation… an informal blank space works great.

Other technology that I see introduced would be Idea Management Toolkits including Crowdicity as used by LEGO, United Nations and OXFAM and Idea Spotlight (used by BBC, Capita, Microsoft) – crowdsource ideas, shorten feedback loops, build communities… slowly work on the culture. With some of the toolkits being gamified, I also see people ‘earning’ points (and prizes) for their active involvement. In my latest engagement, the client opted to develop their own toolkit that sits on the intranet for people to log in with their corporate email. This offers an opportunity to tie ‘innovation’ into HR metrics – recognizing and rewarding contributions.

Importantly, as you run parallel real-world and virtual, run open sessions in your newly-assigned lab space where people can discuss / disagree and build exciting ideas.

Be flexible

Coming from a background of Object-Oriented Design (OOD) and Component-Based Development (CBD), I tend to use SCRUM for solution development. As a leader and manager, I encourage continual quick-hit catch-ups (e.g. ‘walking the floor’) as opposed to lengthy bloated meetings. Since the 1990s, I have implemented KT Meetings in any business that I have worked with – Knowledge Transfer (normally over coffees but, with geographically dispersed teams, Skype / Hangout).

In my latest assignment, we used the principles of SCRUM (though never referred to it as such) comprising the lead stakeholder, the intrapreneur team, and the minesweeper.

As in rugby, you have a multi-disciplined team working together to achieve a common goal – there are strategies, tactics, playbook moves – and the ball is always steadily moving towards the other end of the pitch. This calls for regular communication from the sidelines as well as within the team. Importantly, a rugby team is a demonstration of organized flexibility.

The lead stakeholder is, in SCRUM terms, the product owner accountable for ensuring that the team delivers value to the business (on other assignments, I have seen this be the Finance Director, the Commercial Director and a Sales Director but, for this engagement it was the CEO). The lead stakeholder identifies and prioritizes corporate issues / objectives and communicates this to the lab. This person has the authority and influence to ensure that the lab is given credibility and support from the organization. Beyond this, they leaves the lab alone but provide the bridge between the board and the intrapreneur team.

The intrapreneur team would be SCRUM’s ‘development team’ – designing, building and delivering a solution. This is a multi-function team, led by an intrapreneur (the ‘creative project manager’) who pulls together 3-7 (internal and external) colleagues to deliver within a culture of a startup. The intrapreneur interacts with / feeds back to the lead stakeholder.

The minesweeper is the SCRUM Master – a person with authority but, more importantly, influence to clear the way for the intrapreneur team (this tends to be NIMBY colleagues but can also be corporate legends & myths, unfit-for-purpose process, etc.) The minesweeper keeps the SCRUM on track and tends to run some of the key meetings.

Tagged onto this would be another rugby reference – the team coach – someone who works on the pitch with the team on behalf of the lead stakeholder and the minesweeper. Whereas the lead stakeholder and minesweeper have their ‘day jobs’, the team coach’s day job is a 100% focus on the intrapreneur team as they provide support and guidance on a day-to-day basis, keeping the stages and activities (referred to as a ‘sprint’) on track, facilitating the ‘thin’ meetings (daily SCRUM sessions), etc.

Keep it corporate

When all is said and done, intrapreneurs are employees and, in order to reduce resistance, they still need to communicate like an employee. For all the talk of being different, there is always going to be a call to report in a way that stakeholders feel comfortable. As eternal (internal) innovators, how the reports are produced are up for negotiation – but there should never be someone taking up hours (days!) in producing a factual, evidence-based report – and definitely not passing it through different levels of approval.

Be sustainable & self-sufficient

I start all of my engagements in the same way – I stress to everyone in the room that it is their responsibility to ‘innovate your innovation’ – it should be constantly evolving (back in the 1990s, we always used to talk about a culture of continuous improvement – in the 21st century we need a culture of continuous innovation).

What this means is don’t over-rely on external consultants – use them, for sure – but have a policy of knowledge transfer so that your team can ultimately do it themselves.

As you build a cadre of ‘commercial catalysts’, they will be the ones to take over the mentoring, facilitating and support aspects – and be the team that runs your P&L-driven lab.

What next?

Well, as I say, at some point the external consultant steps back – so be sure to have a simple checklist

  • Be sure that you have knowledge transferred;
  • Don’t be frightened to announce failures as well as celebrate success;
  • Make sure that you report back to the lead stakeholder in a way that the organization understands;
  • Keep on innovating the innovation;
  • Build a case study library on the intranet for everyone to see;
  • Maintain an inclusive culture rather than alienate colleagues;
  • Encourage the ‘breaking down of tribes’ – bringing in naysayers and 3rd parties;
  • Recognize and reward contribution;
  • Demonstrate the ROI

Contact Neil if you are considering intrapreneurship for your enterprise in 2016.

Building your corporate innovation lab