A short guide for corporate misfits

July 8, 2015, 12:39 PM UTC
Photograph by jonathansloane via Getty Images

David Berdish worked to get Ford Motor Company to develop interest in car sharing and urban transport models. Nick Hughes had to appeal to external financing to get Vodafone to support M-Pesa, a mobile-phone based banking service that now enables millions around the world to transfer money. And Mandar Apte rolled out a meditation program at Shell that’s now being piloted to improve safety outcomes at the company. What do these individuals have in common? They are all intrapreneurs—or misfits—pioneering new innovations within incumbent corporations.

Going above and beyond a job description, these types of misfit employees are often at odds with the “carry on incentives” of large bureaucracies. Innovating within a goliath corporation takes grit. Here are some tips from the trenches for anyone looking to drive change from within.

1. Don’t be content with being misunderstood. Many intrapreneurs at times feel like lost, misunderstood outsiders within a system. But rather than relishing your outsider status, work to develop better empathy and understanding for the culture of the company that you work for. Additionally, manage your reputation so that you aren’t perceived as being too disruptive or too far removed from the realities of core business. Know how to camouflage your agenda and choose the right moments to bring people along on the journey.

2. Stay humble and give away ownership. In contrast to entrepreneurs, as an intrapreneur your ideas gain traction when others take them on as their own. Success is less about you, period. Success is about getting buy-in and building networks of support. The more democratized your idea becomes and the more others take ownership of it, the greater resilience it has within a corporate environment. This is as true for intrapreneurs as for CEOs who might face backlash against their “pet projects.” Really make sure your ideas are connected to the lifeblood of the company and have staying power beyond you.

3. Navigate the “clay layer.” You can’t apply the same success metrics and management protocols to running a startup within a business that you use to run the rest of your company. Within large bureaucracies, most innovation is stirred up at the bottom (amongst newer millennial talent) and at the top (amongst legacy workers who know the cultures and systems and how to navigate them). As a result the “clay layer” of middle management is often a barrier to new ideas. To bypass this, ensure that employees with intrepreneurial potential can form alliances between generations, e.g., that great emerging talent can be mentored by “legacy workers” who know your company inside and out.

4. Choose your battles, game the system. Bringing a fresh idea or new business model into an old institution is never easy; choose your battles wisely, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Sometimes a corporate environment can be a minefield of competing agendas and personalities. Good ideas don’t naturally prevail. Make sure to tap your inner Game of Thrones monarch to understand what is motivating other people. If others are preoccupied with their own agendas, they aren’t a receptive audience. Help them see how your work connects with their core motivations and priorities. Gib Bulloch, an intrapreneur at Accenture, put it this way: “I still have to manage the corporate immune system of the firm. There are a lot of people and norms that want to snuff out things that are different.”

5. Make a strong business case and seek protection. Innovation within a company is 1% idea and 99% business case. Be sure to master the art of persuasion. Often new ventures are more focused on a long-term value proposition, which can make it difficult for leadership to see the value of an idea. As David Berdish, a retired intrapreneur from Ford Motor Company, told me, “The company is getting analyzed day by day by Wall Street analysts.” Meanwhile, Berdish was interested in car sharing and mass urban transport options that didn’t have quick returns. To make his ideas stick, he became dependent on others who could champion his work and offer some degree of protection from short-termism.

Alexa Clay is a writer and innovation strategist. She is the Co-Founder of the League of Intrapreneurs and recently published her first book The Misfit Economy (co-authored with Kyra Maya Phillips), which profiles stories of underground innovation and ingenuity from hackers, pirates, and gangsters, amongst others.