Business News

Intrapreneurs required

By Business & Finance
25 May 2016
change shout

Fergal Brophy and Maurice Knightly examine the dynamics of business and find that intrapreneurs will need the shackles of hierarchy and bureaucracy removed if they are to succeed in today’s complex environment.

We are living through the most profound period in the history of commerce. Dynamic changes in technology, demographics, globalisation and the environment are creating turbulent, unpredictable marketplaces.

Yet the pace of change will never be slower than it is today. Coping with such complexity and ambiguity is challenging for all businesses but particularly so for large, long-established organisations. Most are hampered by varying degrees of hierarchy and bureaucracy and are often constrained by traditional systems and processes and outdated reward and motivation programmes. These legacies have resulted in slow, play-safe decision-making that is no longer fit for purpose.


Throughout history, entrepreneurs from King Croesus and Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos have proved capable of habitually capitalising on opportunities and avoiding threats that are the inevitability of change.

New disruptors like Netflix, Spotify, Skype, AirBnB, BuzzFeed, Uber, BlaBlaCar, FitBit, MPesa and Kickstarter have demonstrated how innovative start-ups can change the rules of the game and strike at the very heart of big business. Meanwhile, nimble, agile local artisan entrepreneurs and other niche innovators are capturing the imagination of the modern consumer, forcing traditional global brands to radically rethink their value propositions.


Change clearly poses unprecedented threats for big business at large, and the establishment are in search of long-term sustainable solutions to solve the problem that change presents. Some progressive organisations have set up in-house start-up hothouses such as Coca-Cola Founders, McDonald’s Digital Incubator, Barclays Accelerator, Telefonica’s Wayra and the Irish Defence Forces/IMERC Entrepreneur Ship maritime co-creation facility at Ringaskiddy, Cork. The hubs give the investing organisation access to new creative skills, ideas, talent and markets, while the entrepreneur taps into key resources including established distribution networks and customer bases.

A different approach is on test at Citi. They recently sought to recruit four ‘co-founders/serial entrepreneurs/start-up wizards’ for their Dublin-based Innovation Labs. They were looking for proven entrepreneurs who will “not be afraid to challenge the status quo, question assumptions and generate new ideas by looking at issues from multiple angles”.

Change clearly poses unprecedented threats for big business at large, and the establishment are in search of long-term sustainable solutions to solve the problem that change presents

However, many of us who are engaged in the ecosystem believe that a more fundamental change in organisational culture is required. We believe that a leadership style, ethos and philosophy that seeks to fully compliment the resource advantages of large organisations with the speed-of-foot and customer-led product and market development approach of entrepreneurs is needed.

The focus of this new leadership orientation would be to nurture and cultivate ‘intrapreneurs’ at all levels and across all sectors of their organisations. They would seek to foster their very own version of Lockheed Martin’s famous ‘Skunks Works’ project by encouraging and motivating, not just some, but all employees to think entrepreneurially. They would place the development of entrepreneurial thinking and mindsets at the top of their agenda.


At Innovation Academy UCD, our focus is firmly on developing entrepreneurial mindsets and practicing entrepreneurial thinking rather than setting up start-ups per se. This core philosophy is where we differ from many university-based entrepreneurship centres and accelerators. We believe that entrepreneurial thinking is a way of approaching challenges and opportunities in all walks of everyday life. We believe that given the right environment and encouragement, everyone can develop an entrepreneurial mindset.

We encourage students, educators, professionals and people seeking work to practice the kinds of entrepreneurial behaviour described below. Participants practice entrepreneurial thinking with real-life innovation challenges set by ‘host companies’ as well as in simulated environments.

They develop their entrepreneurial mindset by practicing in a wide variety of contexts and settings including fundraising for local schools or sports clubs, lobbying the public-sector for facilities or additional resources, supporting social causes, and of course, when initiating for-profit start-ups. 


It is important to focus on who you are, what you know and whom you know and not on what you need – this is the very essence of entrepreneurial thinking. At the Academy we play creative, innovative games and work on challenges where the resources available are deliberately limited and where it’s accepted up front that there are many solutions to a given problem.

These simulations help participants to mentally move away from traditional goal oriented approach decision making where you select between given means to achieve a predetermined goal to an effectual approach where you imagine something new using a given set of means. Darden’s Professor Sarasvathy likens this to the difference between deciding what to cook and going out to buy the ingredients required, versus looking at what ingredients you have and deciding what is the best possible dish to prepare.

Knightly and Brophy UCDCollaboration, teamwork and networking are essential for success. Our participants undertake numerous collaborative challenges including the spaghetti and marshmallow challenge, the phone box challenge and design thinking challenges focused on reimagining everyday products such as luggage, the pram and outdoor seating for example.

Hoping that the threats posed by serial entrepreneurs, niche innovators and lean start-ups will not disrupt your established business is not an option

The ‘small world experiment’ is a networking challenge adapted at the Academy to demonstrate to participants the hidden asset that is in our collective networks.

Equally, calculation of risk is the lifeblood of success. Entrepreneurship is not about risk-taking but about understanding the level and extent of the risks associated with decisions. We sense-check students during team exercises to develop their ability to quantify risks inherent in the decisions they take.

Failure is an opportunity to learn rather than the more traditional perception of failure as the opposite of success. We encourage participants to use learning journals to reflect on their failures and successes in areas such as creativity, empathy, ideation, iterative prototyping and teamwork. By coincidence we discovered that reflecting on and sharing stories of failure and success builds creative and innovative confidence amongst practitioners.

Processes are about finding a problem-solution fit. The entrepreneurial mindset needs to first and foremost clearly define the problem to be solved.

This is only discovered by observing and talking to potential and existing customers or users about their pains and gains. This is the difficult part as it involves observing and listening over assuming and jumping to conclusions.

Only after problem definition do you move on to the easier part whereby you ideate a number of alternative, creative solutions to the defined problem. The mindset is to then carry out tests or experiments to identify the best solution by prototyping minimal viable products (MVPs). This cycle of trying to find ‘fit’ is very much an iterative process. This is the build-measure-learn iterative psyche prescribed by Eric Ries in his best-selling book The Lean Startup.


Developing a strong organisational culture focused on entrepreneurial thinking will be difficult and painful to implement in established businesses.

It will require visionary leaders as these new intrapreneurs will need the shackles of hierarchy, bureaucracy, resistance to change and fear of failure removed. They will demand increased freedom and flexibility and new reward and motivational programmes. Intrapreneurs will also require new forms of coaching and more importantly, time and resources to practice the new behaviour needed.

Relying on past glories and hoping that the threats posed by serial entrepreneurs, niche innovators and lean start-ups will not continue to disrupt your established business is simply not an option.