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How much-underutilised talent is there within your business? If you could liberate and harness that potential – what could it do for your business’s productivity and profitability?

A Canadian study in 2015 reported in Human Resources Magazine that around $23,600 per employee is lost annually as a result of underutilisation.

Innovate or die

Because the world is changing so fast right now, it is essential that businesses have all-hands-on-deck and all-eyes-on-watch when it comes to identifying and progressing innovation opportunities. Relying on just the owner/founder, CEO or executive team to come up with all the ideas to benefit the business is an unsustainable model in an exponential and disrupted VUCA world. (VUCA stands for Volatile Unpredictable Complex Ambiguous). It really is a case of innovate or die.

Maintaining a constant stream of innovation requires a critical mass of intrapreneurial employees who are constantly looking for ways to create new as well as improved processes, products, services, customer attraction strategies and innovative delivery models. Without this fuel in the tank of a business, it will eventually start to get run-down and falter even if it has had a great run in the past.

A couple of years ago I did some work with a medium-sized financial services firm. They had been very successful for many years, driven by the entrepreneurialism and energy of the founder. But one day he lifted his head and realised that he could not keep up that pace indefinitely and that he was the only one bringing in new business. After about of ill health, he realised that despite all that hard work, the business was in jeopardy if they couldn’t create a critical mass of intrapreneurs within the business. It is a common situation within the SME sector.

Intrapreneurs are the lifeblood of a business

Intrapreneurs are those employees who are constantly on the lookout for ways of adding value. They use their intimate knowledge of the business and how it operates to solve problems in ways that are highly fit-for-purpose. Their deep, intricate and nuanced knowledge of the business gives them invaluable insight when identifying innovation opportunities and problems worth solving. So, it pays to look within your ranks for people who are hungry to develop their skills, are prepared to invest the time and effort in acquiring them and use them to advance the business.

A wonderful example of an intrapreneur who transformed a small business is Ben a graphic designer who worked for a small printing company. He has been responsible for growing that small business from 11 people in 2015 to 40 today and taking it from being exclusively Sydney based to being a global entity that effectively competes with products coming out of China. This is what happened.  

Ben suggested that the business purchase a ‘DIG’ (Direct to Garment) machine. It was a risk because the DIG machine was really expensive. But the owners listened and were prepared to go on the innovation journey.  The new machine meant that people could directly upload their art and create custom designs in a cost-effective way. Ben then became the bridge between the business and a tech firm that they used to automate the process. The automation exponentially increased productivity, drove the growth of the business creating more jobs and enabled them to compete against international players.  

Here are six steps to capitalising on your intrapreneurs

1.Identify your intrapreneurs.

If you know all your employees personally then you’ve already got a pretty good idea – but if you are a larger SME then sometimes, they can be hiding in plain sight. But there are some exciting new next-gen profiling tools available now to help you identify your intrapreneurs with great accuracy.

2.Give them permission to challenge the status quo.

The extent to which this happens will depend on the culture of the business.

3.Encourage them to think like entrepreneurs.

In other words what decisions would they make if they were the business owner and their future financial security depended on the success of their idea? Would they want to invest their time, energy and resources into it?

4.Have a process for identifying problems worth solving and opportunities worth perusing.

There are innovation opportunities everywhere. Any disappointing result can be reframed as an opportunity for change. Are there underutilised resources in the business that can be repurposed for different outcomes or be used in different ways? Are there processes that once worked well but are now not so efficient? Where are the bottlenecks? Is there something that customers or suppliers regularly complain about or express frustration over? Has there been customer feedback recently that was less than satisfactory? What parts of the business could be automated, digitised or streamlined to save time? It’s not all about the big-ticket items; incremental innovation also creates value over time.

5.Give them support.

Listen to their ideas. Be a sounding board. Collaborate, advise and mentor where necessary.

6.Celebrate intrapreneurialism.

Give credit and acknowledgement where it is due. This will encourage others.

Written by Dr. Irena Yashin-Shaw who is a thought leader and practitioner in the fields of innovation and creativity since before they became the new workplace imperatives.  She is currently spearheading the intrapreneurialism movement in Australia by founding and organising the Australian Intrapreneurs Summit and also in her capacity as founder and editor–in-chief of Intrapreneur Magazine.  Her latest book Intrapreneur: How leaders ignite innovation, break bureaucracy and catalyse change is a guide for anyone wishing to unleash intrapreneurialism in their organisation or business.