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Will corporate intrapreneurs put entrepreneurs out of a job?

There's nothing more faddish than some of the terms used when devising corporate strategy, and now, for better or worse, "intrapreneurship" is back.

Born in the late 1970s, when sudden market shifts first started to demonstrate that the average corporate entity isn't actually good at adapting to change, intrapreneurship is a movement that believes big businesses should grow and innovate the way entrepreneurs do. The first wave of intrapreneurship never really took off, probably for two reasons: a) because innovation is hard, and b) because most big corporate leaders didn't truly believe they could learn anything from small businesses.

But now intrapreneurship is hot again. Unlike the 1980s, the impact of entrepreneurial disruption is all around us: in the urban uproars over Uber, the fuss around fintech, and Detroit's growing attention to Elon Musk and his electric cars. CEOs have to respect small business now, because visionary, nimble entrepreneurs are kicking them in the assets.

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Check any business magazine today, and you'll see evidence of this shift. The business models everyone is copying are those of Etsy, Zappos, Airbnb, Warby Parker and other creative, mission-based innovators. No one wants to be the McDonald's of their industry (low quality, cheapest) any more. Not even McDonald's.

What caused this comeback? "The potential of intrapreneurship is greater than ever," says Hans Balmaekers, program and partnership chief with the Netherlands-based Intrapreneurship Conference. "The business landscape has changed. Consumers are more choosey today, and startups are better able to meet that demand. Intrapreneurship is an opportunity to do more experiments, faster and cheaper."

Mr. Balmaekers says intrapreneurship borrows the best qualities of savvy startups: a bias for change, openness to learning and collaborating, a commitment to customer feedback, and tolerance for risk.

This month the Intrapreneurship Conference will hold its first two Canadian events – in Waterloo, Ont., on June 14, and Montreal on June 16. (In the interests of full disclosure, I have been invited to speak at the Montreal conference.)

Most intrapreneurship programs are still small-scale. They tend to be championed by just one senior executive in an organization, and confined to one group that's specially empowered to test new ideas and fail fast. Mr. Balmaekers says it will take most early adopters years to extend that kind of thinking throughout their organizations.

Intrapreneurship starts with humility, which in big firms is rarely a core competence. "At our conferences, no one hides behind their business cards," says Mr. Balmaeker. "It's not about competing and showing off, but collaborating and learning together."

When I first heard about the Intrapreneurship Conference, I must admit I wavered for a moment. Is intrapreneurship actually good for entrepreneurs? Do we really want market-dominating, resource-rich corporations taking our best stuff: our entrepreneurial hunger for disruption, our ability to turn on a dime, our commitment to constantly surprise and delight our customers? When our only advantage is agility, do we really want corporations to learn how to dance?

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In the end, I concluded, the answer is yes. Of course we want smarter, savvier corporates making waves in their marketplaces. Small business won't just benefit from the competition; we will all gain from faster-moving and more risk-tolerant markets.

Here's why:

Entrepreneurs exist to spot gaps and seize opportunities. As bigger organizations embrace change and disruption, they will naturally become more open to doing deals with fearless, creative, small businesses. If big companies start attracting and empowering more innovative executives, they give us more willing prospects to pitch to and partner with. Having people at the top of big businesses who actually have budgets for new ideas, projects and processes will be a huge opportunity for visionary entrepreneurs.

Many ideas never get to market because of lack of funding. Creating more intrapreneurial organizations doesn't just generate more prospects for small business, but also more potential strategic partners and investors. Many brilliant but cash-constrained entrepreneurs would gladly swap ownership of an idea for stock options (or employment) in innovative large company, if it means seeing their vision realized.

"Build to sell" is the mantra of many entrepreneurs. The more that large companies understand and appreciate the value that smaller independents bring to their markets, the more they will be open to buying early-stage ventures.

Innovation is increasingly being recognized as a key differentiator, economic driver and source of job creation. If bigger businesses become better at innovation, they will create a more robust and competitive Canadian economy – which is good for every business, small or large.

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Entrepreneurs should do everything they can to help their more corporate-minded colleagues adopt the culture of intrapreneurship. It may take years, and many setbacks. Corporate CEOs tend to be risk-averse, status-conscious, and in office for a very short time. They'll need all the help they can get.

Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.

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About the Author
CEO, Spyder Works

Ken Tencer is the CEO of Spyder Works and co-developer of The 90% Rule, a success-tested innovation process that enables businesses of all sizes to identify, filter and implement growth opportunities. More

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