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02.05.2014Five Mistakes Organizational Innovators Make

When a great idea from an innovator or intrapreneur fails to reach its potential, there can be soul searching or worse.

Ashoka, Forbes.com

When a great idea from an innovator or intrapreneur inside a corporation, nonprofit or government fails to reach its potential, there can be soul searching or worse. Failing gracefully is an important skill for entrepreneurial minded employees, but if those failures were avoidable, why not skip the messiness? Here are five intrapreneurial missteps innovators within institutions should be aware of:

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1. Creating a solution… and then looking for the problem

When stumbling upon the eureka moment for an innovation that will benefit your organization, the initial inclination is often to produce a well designed concept note or Power Point deck showcasing the idea. However, framing a product, project or program without clearly defining the problem it solves is an easy way to doom your innovation. Pitches full of jargon, acronyms and graphics may enable the innovator to get internal funding and consensus for a piloting stage, but if the offering does not alleviate a problem or meet a real need, it can suffer with slow pick-up and apathy. The misstep can manifest itself as a well designed website, app, or campaign that looks great on paper but does see much action or impact. As the solution put forward is already well defined, it can be difficult to pivot with already built-up expectations.

2. Rigid Contracting

Most nonprofits and civic institutions cannot compete for top technical talent against tech firms and startups offering bigger paychecks and extraordinary perks. This generates a gap around an innovations need in areas like user experience design, coding, and data infrastructure or management. To overcome the gap, a viable solution is to contract with outside firms or individual consultants to deliver the technical need on a contract basis. But the way in which these contracts get structured can create significant problems for the innovator in the development phase.

Technical contractors typically require very strict parameters for their agreements with organizations because too loose a contract invites “feature creep” — an endless supply of ideas and revisions on the work plan which lacks an understanding of the time and effort required for technical work. However, too rigid a contract has many inherent negative consequences as well. When an innovation is still in its development stage, there is a need for agility, constant evaluation, pivoting and iteration. If a contract is too rigid, there may be no way to change course when you realize halfway through a contract to build a “chair” that in fact what you need is a “table.” A rigid contract may also build dependencies that the innovator becomes aware of only when deep into the work plan. Contracting in many large organizations is notoriously slow and painstaking, so allowing for some flexibility and agility may be the difference between success or failure for an innovation.

3. Letting a project become about an individual

As a great innovation begins to be validated, it often necessitates that the intrapreneur or innovator take risks outside their normal job responsibilities. As the changemaking idea begins to gain momentum, this is bound to upset someone who sees the innovator “breaking the rules” and disrupting the status quo. As visibility and accolades for the innovation grow, it becomes critical that the intrapreneur passes the stigma of success along to their team or the organizational brand. If an intrapreneur grabs the spotlight while the idea is still in its formative or early growth stage, the innovation can become associated more directly with the individual. While entrepreneurs do not need to worry about this pitfall, an intrapreneur runs the risk of creating co-worker jealousy and/or unreasonable expectations, which creates powerful detractors and skeptics that can slow the innovation.

4. Allowing an innovation to grow too big, too fast

The former director of Makerere University School of Public Health gave a piece of advice during my formative years as an innovator: “Let a good idea grow too big too fast, and you risk becoming a dinosaur. And everyone knows the fate of the dinosaur.”  It is possible for an innovator to grow his project at a hyper speed, skipping over testing, assumption building, iterating, and validating, and still see some early success. However, when a large organization begins the scale-up process without key infrastructure, capacity building, supply chain, etc, it is a recipe for disaster. The innovator runs the risk of wasting resources when over-exuberant buy-in by senior leaders creates a bandwagon effect. As soon as the bloated innovation looks like it may be bound for extinction, the blame will likely fall at the feet of the innovator.

5.  Forgetting Inclusiveness

For sustained success, the intrapreneur must balance a fearlessness in challenging the status quo with a thoughtfulness in forming internal organizational allies and trusted bonds with beneficiary/customer stakeholders. Overlooking inclusion in the short term sets up long term obstacles and roadblocks. Skip input from colleagues, risk generating pushback based on the fact they were not given a chance to input on. Forget customer or beneficiary in the innovation development process, and lose a critical voice that can be a critical advocate in getting a greenlight from senior management. It may be a truism that intrapreneurship is not a solo-act, so although it may slow down progress, it can be a way to avoid future headache.

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