Listen before leading - internal innovation is critical to future success. Successful organisations that embrace this strategy develop forums, models, and mechanisms to manage this change.

Can you really create internal entrepreneurs?

Take a look at the FTSE 100 today and compare it to 50 years ago, and you’ll see that over 80% of the names have changed. Why? Because some businesses didn’t innovate quickly enough and got left behind. The ones that did have developed organisational cultures that embrace disruption and adapt – keeping them at the forefront of their industry.

The lesson is that organisations must harness their internal potential, empowering individuals to make decisions and control their destinies. However, leaders walk a tightrope between exerting too much control and giving team members too much freedom.

Given the challenges bosses and businesses face, the question is, how can you create internal entrepreneurs?

Why innovation wins

Anyone who read a business magazine or blog a decade ago will have heard the phrase “intrapreneur”. The concept was that progressive companies encouraged team members to become entrepreneurs, developing new ideas, strategies, and solutions within a business, not outside it.

Like much in business, intrapreneurship is a rebranding of the Japanese business philosophy of Kaizen – where everyone from the production line to the boardroom can suggest changes to increase productivity.

In business, an old idea never dies; it just gets rebranded. Fast forward to today, and we can see that Silicon Valley tech businesses have rebadged and slightly reworked the concept.

Companies such as Google claim to use the 20% rule – where everyone can spend a proportion of their working time on a project they love without fear of failure. Of course, if they come up with the next Gmail or Maps, Google takes ownership of it. If they develop Google Glass, they’ll quickly cover it up and pretend it never happened.

Customer-focused innovation is an integral part of the agile philosophy within software firms. Teams are encouraged to view technology as an enabler – a tool to solve genuine customer problems. As a result, ideas from all are exchanged, tested, and iterated upon to deliver solutions.

However you brand or badge it, the world’s biggest businesses across all sectors encourage internal innovation.

Principles and practice

Kaizen, intrapreneurship, the 20% rule, and agile reflect the truth that great ideas can come from anywhere. It’s an appreciation that we all have unique – and valuable – perspectives. We can identify issues in processes that senior teams – many of whom are removed from day-to-day – can miss.

It should be clear by now that the question isn’t whether you should encourage internal entrepreneurship but how.

The strategies adopted by Japanese manufacturers, tech firms, and software developers all work to create a culture where people listen to each other and learn from them. Idea sharing is intrinsic to their culture – and their future success.

When we talk about internal entrepreneurship, we can distil this into a single activity – that managers and teams have a forum to meet, discuss and exchange ideas. In great organisations, innovation isn’t the responsibility of one person, department, or group – it’s embedded as a process within a business. It’s something that every team member has a role and responsibility to participate in, and it can be hugely valuable.

Listen before leading

This isn’t a how-to guide or a set of rules to follow but a recognition that internal innovation is critical to future success. Successful organisations that embrace this strategy develop forums, models, and mechanisms to manage this change.

People in senior roles need to recalibrate their approach and learn to listen before leading. Everyone should have the freedom to identify problems and develop solutions, free from the constraints of the command-and-control structure that most organisations operate.

It’s something that we do at Saragossa. The talent pipeline is being transformed, with companies searching for a broader range of soft skills and technical knowledge. In a rapidly changing environment, we must review and refine how we engage with talent – and our consultants lead that approach. Why? Because they’re the ones with a direct line to clients and can understand their demands most acutely.

We give consultants the freedom to solve problems, delivering talent acquisition solutions for their clients. They can build strategies to discover the right people, creating connections that benefit the businesses we work with.

As leaders, we’re constantly checking ourselves to ensure we’re giving everyone at Saragossa the opportunity to operate, innovate, and grow. Of course, they’ll make mistakes – as we all do – but they, and we, will learn and improve. That’s what entrepreneurs do, after all.