Intrapreneurship in Professional Services Firms: Encouraging Innovative Leadership Among Your Staff

5 min read

Here’s how you can leverage your people to boost business outcomes – without giving yourself more work.

As a professional services firm, your greatest asset is your people. It’s your people who carry out client work, who hit deadlines, and who create the value your firm needs to stay competitive.

But people create value in more than one way. And each one of your employees has some kind of skill that is likely under-leveraged. As a leader with all manner of different responsibilities, there’s only so much you can do to maximize your team’s human potential. That’s why it’s important to establish a culture of intrapreneurship, where your team is invited and actively encouraged to get their hands dirty with pet projects – within your firm.

Creating this kind of culture, where every employee is a leader in some way, is a great tactic for boosting team morale and finding new efficiencies within your organization. Here are some of the ways that fostering a culture of intrapreneurship can give your firm a boost – and some tactics for creating that culture.

What is an Intrapreneur?

An intrapreneur is someone who acts like an entrepreneur, but who does so inside of an established organization. They create innovative ideas using company resources. Any staff member could have the potential to be an intrapreneur, and the innovation they create could come from any area of your firm.

Perhaps your junior associate likes to code in their off-hours, and they’ve come up with a way to speed up your website without sacrificing user experience. Maybe your receptionist is a gifted graphic artist who comes up with a great new logo design. Or you might have an accountant on staff who has uncovered a whole new market for your services and has come up with a plan for how your firm can create value in that market.

No matter what form these innovations take, the common theme of intrapreneurship is that they come from within your organization. These new ideas arise from unstructured time and free thought by your existing employees – and they could help you capture new markets, uncover efficient new ways of doing things, or boost your profitability.

(One famous example of an intrapreneur invention is the Post-It note. Post-Its were invented by a pair of 3M employees who wanted to create a temporary adhesive bookmark. The rest, as they say, is history.)

But while some level of intrapreneurship can happen accidentally, it can also be planned and cultivated. As a leader at your firm, you can set a workplace culture that encourages creative thinking and rewards successful intrapreneurial endeavors.

How Intrapreneurs Create Value

Intrapreneurs create value in a variety of ways. First and foremost, intrapreneurs offer companies a low-risk and low-cost means of finding and testing out new ideas. Because your intrapreneurs are already on staff, there are no added expenses associated with their ideas – unlike contracting an external consultant, for example.

Intrapreneurs are already embedded within your organization, which gives them unique insights and a holistic point of view. Your existing employees can see your company operate from the inside – and because they’re closer to your processes and services, they’re well-positioned to spot inefficiencies and opportunities for innovation.

Intrapreneurs don’t just create value through their ideas – they also create value through their commitment and motivation. When you give an intrapreneur a task, they’re highly motivated to complete it. That means intrapreneurs have not only the bright ideas that could revolutionize businesses, but also the practical skills to bring those ideas to life.

Cultivating Intrapreneurship in Your Firm

Chances are, your firm already has potential future intrapreneurs on staff. These go-getters are likely already coming up with innovative ideas that could streamline your business operations, reduce costs, improve profitability, or open up new revenue streams. But if you want to reap the benefits of their ideas, you’ll need to create an environment where they’re able to share those ideas freely – an environment where they’re rewarded for their creativity.

One way you can encourage intrapreneurship in your firm is to give your staff unstructured time every week that they can use to work on anything they feel called to work on. Large companies like Intuit are already using unstructured time as a means to cultivate intrapreneur-driven ideas. 

This may sound counterintuitive in a paradigm where your team is exchanging time for money – and there’s definitely an opportunity cost associated with this kind of a tactic. But companies that successfully implement unstructured innovation time have one thing in common: They prioritize ROI. That is to say, they prioritize Return On Intelligence.

Coined by consultancy owner Simone Bhan Ahuja, Return on Intelligence essentially means that every innovation is either a success or a learning experience, and every learning experience builds toward a future success. Every attempt at a new idea, whether successful or not, ends with insights that can be applied across your organization.

That means even if your intrapreneurs’ ideas don’t immediately lead to enhanced productivity or lower costs or some other measurable business outcome, those ideas have helped you determine what does or doesn’t work. Even an unsuccessful idea can still render key takeaways you can apply across your organization – and that same idea could become successful with some refinement.

Cultivating a culture of intrapreneurship also means recognizing and rewarding initiative when you see it. Teach your team that innovation is welcome by celebrating it when it happens. Remember: The more impactful the innovation, the bigger the reward should be. Demonstrate the value of innovation in your firm by rewarding your intrapreneurs according to the degree to which they’ve improved your company.

Intrapreneurs are a rich resource for companies in any industry, and their innovations have the potential to boost revenue, improve productivity, cut costs, or even uncover new market opportunities for new services. The more you and your firm can encourage intrapreneurship, the more likely you’ll be to reap the benefits of game-changing ideas. Remember: In the current business and technology landscape, innovation is the only thing that can separate you from your competitors.

How are you encouraging intrapreneurship at your firm? What innovations have your team members come up with that are changing the way you conduct business?

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