Skip to main content

Metrolinx is constantly testing pilot projects. Some recent examples: Reserving 4,000 of the 65,000 parking spots at GO Train stations for commuters who car pool; electric vehicle charging stations; and a partnership with Zipcar.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Who is an intrapreneur? Usually highly self-motivated, proactive and action-oriented people who are comfortable with taking the initiative, even within the boundaries of an organization, in pursuit of an innovative product or service. This series examines eight companies that encourage an intrapreneurial culture. Read other stories about Telus, Hootsuite, Canadian Tire, Loblaw, Duha Group, Oil Country Engineering Services and Absolute Software.

It's counterintuitive: Public agencies are by nature risk averse yet are still expected to innovate.

Bruce McCuaig understands the paradox. As president and chief executive officer of the Ontario's transit agency Metrolinx, he has a mandate to improve and better integrate all modes of public transit in the Greater Toronto Area. It's a big job. He projected GO Transit would carry about 69 million passengers by bus and rail by the end of 2014 – about 96 per cent of them to and from Union Station in downtown Toronto.

Without risk there can be no innovation, he says, but when public money is on the line there's a great temptation to burden new ideas with so many controls that they simply die in gestation.

To get ideas to the table, Antoine Belaieff, Metrolinx director of innovation, makes sure they are freely circulated, discussed and given a reasonable chance of becoming a pilot project.

Some recent homegrown examples include reserving 4,000 of the 65,000 parking spots at GO Train stations for commuters who car pool; electric vehicle charging stations; and a partnership with Zipcar that brings car sharing to transit stations. Metrolinx is also adding energy efficient designs to its new stations – Pickering, for example, has geothermal heating.

While it seems out of place for a public transit agency to support the concept of intrapreneurship, Mr. Belaieff says it's baked into Metrolinx's corporate culture.

Creating a culture of innovation is critical in any organization regardless of whether it is a public agency, a private company or a publicly traded company, though each comes with its own approach to risk mitigation, Mr. McCuaig said.

"We plan projects for not just the next quarter or even five years down the road but 10 or 20 years. We play as a team, not working in silos and cutting across business units to be cross-functional. And we serve with passion. A lot of people are here for a reason because they are personally aligned with transforming the regional transit system," he said.

Mr. Belaieff acts as the catalyst between the team, its passion, and forward-thinking values, soliciting ideas, collecting and analyzing bottom-up suggestions. He then gets input into the viability and impact of any proposal and quantifies the risks.

"You can't beat people over the head, it has to come from their hearts."

Public agencies are more risk adverse, Mr. Belaieff allows, so the risk-assessment model has to be robust and that means transparency is paramount. "We are very upfront with senior management about the risks," he said, and that includes outlining the likelihood of failure. Because it's a public agency, things do take time so Mr. Belaieff says it's important to have "lots of things on the stove."

Some of the innovation projects are internal, such as conserving energy use, harnessing social media tools so that co-workers can suggest ways of being more efficient, and getting them to vote on ideas.

Others are external. On the ticketing side, Metrolinx piloted a scheme which gave Toronto FC fans a free ride home on GO Transit last August if they had a game-day ticket. Next year, Mr. McCuaig says they're looking at expanding it to more sports teams and events which might include the Pan American Games.

On the property front, Metrolinx is also working with developer Ivanhoé Cambridge to create a new downtown Toronto bus terminal by 2018 at the base of a twin-tower office project.

Moving forward, Mr. McCuaig said there are other innovations being thrust at Metrolinx: GO will also have to consider how autonomous cars, or driverless cars, which are already on the roads in California and Britain, will impact the service and transit generally.

The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management professor Sarah Kaplan said the notion of intrapreneurship is making a comeback since it was first popularized 20 or more years ago.

Dr. Kaplan, co-author of the bestselling business book, Creative Destruction, said top-down management styles have evolved since then into more collaborative models.

It's always a challenge, she said, because publicly traded companies are driven by quarterly earnings and innovations don't fit into nice, neat timelines and often show up as a loss on the books, something many investors don't like to see.

"For entrepreneurs, it's different because venture capital investors may make 10 investments and expect only one to hit, with a few breaking even and losses on the others which will be covered by the successful one," she said. "But companies often don't take a portfolio approach to their innovation strategies."

While Dr. Kaplan isn't directly familiar with Metrolinx, her research shows that C-suite executives play a critical role in nurturing intrapreneurship, giving their innovators "air cover" and permission to fail without fear of being fired.

"In Silicon Valley, for example, they say you never find success with a startup until you've failed three times," she said, adding that failure is part of the learning and evolutionary process.

Mr. Belaieff concurs: "You need senior management to support you … Not everything we have tried has been a resounding success, certainly not all the reserved parking for car pooling worked at some stations. Still it's easy enough to take the reserved spaces out."

The process they've devised works, Mr. McCuaig said, with maybe two, three or four of 10 ideas brought to the table going forward to a pilot project to assess and learn.

GO Stations, for example, can be more than just places to park. They're part of the community and could even serve as parcel locker locations – where customers' online orders are delivered to a secure locker because they're not at home to receive delivery. It's all about what comes forward, either from within the organization or from outside and seeing it as an opportunity, he said.

"It's not about me saying you do this," Mr. McCuaig said. "It's more about the leadership of the organization supporting innovation and allowing the staff who know the most about the business at the front end to develop strategies and tactics which are appropriate and could be put into place."