Internal entrepreneurs can unlock innovation—if you let them

By Ryan Galloway
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The Brief
Internal entrepreneurs—driven, innovative thinkers within your organization—can take your company to the next level, but only if you give them the space they need to create and develop their ideas. 

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Photo by Sarolta Bán

“We’re building something here, detective. We’re building it from scratch. All the pieces matter.” Detective Lester Freamon, The Wire

Fans of HBO’s The Wire will recall Lester Freamon, the brilliant but long-suffering detective who was relegated to the pawnshop beat after running afoul of his superiors. Freamon’s gifts as a detective—particularly as an innovative and lateral thinker—were neglected for years until he was placed on a task force with a challenging objective. But it wasn’t his gifts that made Freamon such a familiar and compelling character. It was his frustration. Businesses all over the world are filled with similar characters, people who brim with ideas and potential but lack a sympathetic outlet within management. These internal entrepreneurs, driven by a vision and desire to create something new, are under-appreciated assets. Empowering them to make their vision a reality require business leaders to take a risk, but the payoff can be huge.

Only the lonely

Like Freamon, internal entrepreneurs can be a lonely bunch. They often feel locked into an unfulfilling role, limited by the scope of their position and stifled by a corporate structure that limits their ability to create and execute. Even more damaging to internal entrepreneurs is the lack of a support network that engages and encourages them. A 2013 study by Accenture revealed that while 52 percent of professionals polled said that they’ve pursued an entrepreneurial idea at the office, just 20 percent believe that their employers offer adequate support to make those ideas a reality.

It’s easy to see how isolating that can be. As Len Schlesinger and Charlie Kiefer note at HBR.org:
[Internal entrepreneurs] report feeling quite lonely. Even though they’re surrounded by people at work, they generally don’t have brainstorming partners or even like-minded individuals inside their organization, and tell us that for support they typically rely on popular books and conferences. These can certainly be helpful but are wholly incomplete—and terrible as a substitute for human relationships.


Bring them in, set them free

The missed opportunity here is huge; creating an environment that allows these talented souls to ideate, create and execute often comes with massive upside at the product and process levels. But it’s also easier said than done. Here’s how to rethink your corporate culture to make the most of your internal entrepreneurs.

1. Create challenges, not roles. Titles often come with a set of inherent proscriptions. Rather than locking a talented internal entrepreneur into a fixed role within a single department, allow them to roam, and empower them to interact as needed with multiple functions and departments. If they have to ask a superior for permission to set up a meeting with another stakeholder, you’re doing something wrong.

2. Don’t just listen. The “open door policy” is a nice idea, but it’s a half measure. To create an environment that genuinely empowers internal entrepreneurs, start with listening—and then give the speaker clear space to act. That doesn’t mean carte blanche, but it does mean giving them the resources and support to execute on their idea. Setting measurable goals and deadlines can help make their ideas palatable to senior stakeholders. Speaking of which…


“The ‘open door policy’ is a nice idea, but it’s a half measure.”

3. Provide air cover. If they’re on your team, they’re on your budget. You’ll be answerable for their success, and that should motivate you to support them when it comes to selling their ideas to the C-suite. In a study by the Babson Entrepreneur Experience Lab, one internal entrepreneur reported having to spend 50 percent of his time selling his idea to internal stakeholders. Make that your job. After all, their successes will be your successes, so don’t be afraid to take a chance on a great idea. 

4. Help them limit their exposure. Again, you’re taking a risk by giving an internal entrepreneur room to run. But if you’re going to see ROI on your decision, you need to help them develop their plans and projects internally without fear. One way, as the Babson study notes, is through “progressive disclosure.” Borrowed from the world of interaction design, progressive disclosure is the act of revealing information only to those who need it. In short, help them start small before spreading their ideas across the organization.

The Takeaway
Creating a culture that allows internal entrepreneurs to come to the surface rather than sink beneath the rank-and-file can give your organization an innovative edge. Ditch the guardrails, listen, provide support and, most of all, try to stay out of their way. As Lester Freamon said, “You’d be surprised what you can get done when no one is looking over your shoulder.”


Ryan Galloway is Managing Editor for Contently. He has written for Business Insider and Forbes.com and is a frequent contributor to this blog.

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