How established companies can think like startups again

Here’s how longstanding firms use intrapreneurship—getting employees to act like entrepreneurs—to stay fresh

man sitting on the floor with a laptop


Once a company has been successful for a while, it can be hard to get back the spark that will propel it to the next new market or great product idea. Here’s some advice on how to recapture that startup spirit:

1. Build Idea Labs

“We have three labs where we actually bring people together to try new ideas. You have to pick the individuals carefully. Labs need people who love to bounce around ideas and who are happy in their skin. And they need a healthy mix of new grads, experienced people and co-op students. The mix of idea people and doers is also critical. The leaders need to know how to help individuals and teams create new ideas, try them fast and then pick the best ones. Finally, senior management must keep an open mind and stay involved as new ideas grow into opportunities. Intrapreneurship is difficult at the best of times, but a lab creates a place where everybody in the company can see something special is happening.”

Eugene Roman, Chief Technology Officer, Canadian Tire

2. Change how you think about failure

“Organizations need to commit to becoming entrepreneurial and recognize the benefits of it. But they also need to recognize the downsides of it. Failure is a big one, and this is a challenge for large companies. They say they want to become more entrepreneurial, but they don’t want to fail. Traditionally, when someone tries something new and it doesn’t work out, the organization responds by reprimanding them and discouraging them from trying new things to avoid failure. In order to innovate, companies need to recognize the possibility of failure and recast it as learning, and change the collective mentality of how they view failure.”

J. Robert Mitchell, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship Education, Ivey Business School

3. Run Pitch Competitions

“We have a few competitions across various departments that help foster the spirit of intrapreneurship. We’ve run 14 Telus Improvement Day events since 2012, which have generated over 130 ideas. Team members get to work on short-to-medium-term business improvement ideas, and come up with a rough assessment of the financial impact and an implementation plan. They then present their ideas to a panel of VP judges, who select an idea to be implemented. One example of a winning proposal was the simplification of the packaging around our SIM cards. We removed a large terms and services booklet, and digitized it, reducing print costs and waste, and saving around $1 million annually.”

Kevin Banderk, Vice-President of Mobility Marketing, Telus

4. Give employees time for passion projects

“All organizations create routines, and innovation requires new routines, so it’s difficult. Routines allow you to operate efficiently—keep doing the same things over and over again without thinking about it—but they get in the way of trying to do something new. To overcome that challenge, you have to give people the opportunity to participate in what’s called ‘skunk works.’ That means employees can work on something outside of supervision and just try it out. It may be during part of the normal workday, at night or on the weekend, but basically you get to do something your traditional manager doesn’t pay attention to. And it may be one person working on it or a small team of people. It’s used in a lot of firms because people just want to mess with things without supervision. When somebody comes up with something they want to share, it’s useful to have some sort of semi-formal process they can submit ideas to. If the project is interesting, the firm can give the employee money and formal time off to work on it.”

William Mitchell, Professor of Strategic Management, Rotman School of Management, Toronto

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