“Intrapreneurship” is a concept familiar to big tech brands like Google and Apple, but how can it be fostered in a more traditional industry like retail? Michael Cohen, General Manager of LoyaltyOne’s innovation lab Zero Gravity Labs, offers some advice for fostering innovation and attracting great talent.
The idea of “intrapreneurship” was introduced by big tech companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. These multi-billion-dollar brands with thousands of employees around the globe somehow found a way to stay true to their innovative roots and, to a degree, continue to operate like a much smaller startup. This notion of building an environment that fosters and rewards entrepreneurial thinking in a traditionally corporate setting was novel at first, but the rapid rate of change in technology and the number of nimble, scrappy startups that are making an impact has changed that perception. Technology has forced major changes to even the most conservative industries, making intrapreneurship an increasingly attractive proposition for companies looking for an edge over their competition.
Innovation is the heart of entrepreneurialism, and innovation is hard work. It requires smart people, forward thinking and asking difficult questions, all of which aren’t always synonymous with companies in traditional categories like retail. So how do big brands get past that hurdle to attract new talent and encourage existing employees to push new boundaries? Here are a few places to start.
Create Psychological Safety for Failure
The first step to innovation is uncertainty, often followed quickly by failure — which is hard to swallow for a lot of companies. The nature of getting ahead of the curve requires funding a lot of research into ideas that don’t pan out. Thinking years ahead sometimes means reading academic papers for weeks before an idea even begins to form, but if you manage to find one that’s truly innovative out of a hundred explored, your investment in the innovation process may pay for itself tenfold. To encourage entrepreneurial thinking, you need senior leadership that understands its value and champions it. Communicate constantly with your employees that new ideas are valued, and give them room to grow. Celebrate not only the wins your team has but all the tactics and ideas they have tried. Some of the best products (such as Post-it Notes) came from a failure.
Understand Intrapreneurial Talent
The most innovative talent emerging today isn’t interested in building a tenure, or spending a career at one company. They’re interested in working in a place that challenges them to go to the edge and make a real impact on the world (or at least an industry). Yes, creating a startup environment that offers perks like free snacks and pinball is helpful, but if you’re not offering them the chance to push boundaries, you’ll never attract or hold onto the talent that will help you move the needle. And once you have an intrapreneurial thinker on the team, be sure to listen to their needs and adjust accordingly. Regular check-ins on whether people are feeling challenged and happy is a great way to do this and fosters a relationship based on mutual trust.
Smart, Flexible, Adaptable and Inquisitive Is the Job Description of the Future
When fostering an innovative environment, look for what Ideo describes as T-shaped talent: people who have a deep area of expertise but whose real skill set is driven by a continual desire and ability to learn. They might best be described as “intellectually curious.” True innovation comes with lots of ambiguity, and requires avoiding being locked into a singular skill or a singular way of thinking. Don’t hire just a designer. Hire a designer who also understands data and is a savvy strategist. Don’t hire just a marketer. Hire a marketer who can think creatively but is also willing to learn and understand the product development process. By overlapping all those T’s, you can create a foundation for true success.
Being innovative is far from easy, but it’s becoming an increasingly important task for retailers hoping to compete with their direct competitors and major industry disrupters like Amazon. For the brands looking to do so, the challenges are large but not insurmountable. The process requires getting comfortable with being uncomfortable and making big changes, but for those who can manage it, the benefits far outweigh the strain of change. The only way you can fail is to not start.