Ah, innovation. At its core, it’s all about solving problems. That’s why the saying “necessity is the mother of invention” couldn’t be truer. Every day, both in our personal and professional lives, we encounter hurdles, and sometimes, in our moment of despair, we come up with ideas to solve them. But usually —let’s be honest here— ideas just stay ideas.
When it comes to work specifically, we all have a great potential to become innovators. While working with clients, we may ask ourselves, “Have we considered the latest technology available for them?” We know our clients’ needs —and the business we work in— intrinsically, so who’s better placed to address them than us?
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We at PwC Luxembourg saw this potential —well, a specific team to be more precise. As Steven Johnson, a science author and media theorist, pointed out, “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.“
That’s why we created PwC Exponential, an ecosystem within PwC Luxembourg, where our people have room to mingle with innovation. In this blog, we explain how it works in practice and why organisations should encourage and support new ideas from their professionals, as well as onboard startups in innovation projects.
Intrapreneurship and Entrepreneurship: what’s the difference?
In reality, intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship require the same type of activities and mindset. It’s about working differently —against some sort of odds even— and thinking creatively.
However, intrapreneurship is about turning attention towards the internal capabilities and fostering an entrepreneur mindset inside an organisation. That’s because any employee could be brewing a disruptive idea, which, if voiced, could have a tremendous impact on the business.
In other words, promoting intrapreneurship means organisations create the right environment to empower and motivate employees to come up with and implement innovative solutions. And that requires providing resources —both time and money.
On the other hand, entrepreneurs usually have to start from scratch, use their own resources or look for investors, which means that the risks for them are usually higher. They work on a vision towards their new project, but they have much more at stake —basically, how to fund the company, break even and then make it successful.
Intrapreneurship is a relatively recent concept, but if you do a little research you will realise that it’s been around for a while now. You will also find an abundance of examples. Google, for instance, has a “20% time” rule to encourage their employees to work on side projects they believe will most benefit the tech giant. In fact, that’s how AdSense and Google News came to life.
And did you know that it was an Apple employee, working on the development of the first iPhone, who came up with the “swipe to unlock” feature? He had his “eureka” moment when locking the bathroom door of the aeroplane toilet.
Why to introduce intrapreneurship in a corporate environment
You might be wondering, “PwC is a financial services firm, so why do they care about innovation?” Our purpose is to solve our clients’ problems the best way we can. As these problems become more and more complex and technology-driven, it’s clear we can’t follow the same ways we did 20 years ago. That’s why today our focus is to combine perspectives and technologies to create new solutions, build trust and make a lasting difference.
We need to keep developing and to adapt. While our sector might not be as dynamic as others, there’s still plenty of room for innovative projects to take off. Moreover, we understand that we shouldn’t merely focus on improving and optimising the existing business, but also find new ways of driving and sustaining growth to remain relevant.
Here are some other benefits of corporate intrapreneurship:
Facilitates continuous innovation: if your organisation has the practice of empowering its intrapreneurs, more ideas can come to the surface, and a higher number of innovative solutions will materialise.
Drives a competitive advantage through steady organic growth: it might be unrealistic to expect employees to come up with breakthrough solutions that will save the world. At the end of the day, intrapreneurship is about generating value and a long-term vision. Give it enough time and you will see an organic growth that can put you ahead of your competition.
Leads to an innovation culture: employee experience will be positively impacted in an organisation that openly encourages entrepreneurial thinking. Employees will feel emboldened to take initiative, be independent and accountable for their ideas as well as their growth and development.
Attract and retain top talent: intrapreneurship can be very rewarding because it enables employees to express their creativity. This increases loyalty and helps retain more top professionals.
In short, it’s a win-win situation. Intrapreneurs can have a truly positive impact in an organisation, by contributing and being part of the change, while exercising their creativity and being innovative. However, as we mentioned, for this to happen, organisations should establish the right environment for intrapreneurs to thrive.
How to promote corporate intrapreneurship
Innovation and intrapreneurship aren’t just fancy words; they require a process. Undoubtedly, the ideas people bring to the table are central, but it’s also important to know how to put them on the market and bring them to clients.
The first step to promoting intrapreneurship in an organisation is to clearly define what it is good at, where it brings the best value, and how it can onboard the best talent in the selected fields.
Next, is to set up the space for people to submit their solutions. That’s why PwC Luxembourg’s Exponential team launched an innovation platform called Idea Lab.
If the idea is accepted, then it’s time to prepare a business case, which includes considering the potential revenues the idea, product or service can generate, and then present it to a committee.
Once approved, the project is then launched. In this phase, it’s time for the project owner and the sponsor to move the idea forward by talking to clients to get their feedback before putting it in the market. The goal is to have a very good product or service that truly answers their needs.
Finally, after going through various iteration processes, including finding the right technology and prototyping, it’s time to commercialise the solution and bring it out to clients for use.
In case you are wondering how long the entire process takes, from idea to fruition, a project’s life cycle could be anywhere from 18 months to 24 months.
Concrete examples of how PwC spurs innovation
Idea Lab Challenge
Through the Idea Lab challenges, the Exponential team asks our professionals about what kind of new products or services we can develop for our clients. When they come forward with a solution, they have the unique opportunity to choose and partner with a startup of their choice to create the next PwC product or service.
They can either select the startup from a list the Exponential team provides, or they can find one on their own, or even submit an idea without it. Afterwards, the shortlisted teams have the opportunity to pitch their idea during our Dragons’ Den event.
No, it has nothing to do with mediaeval times and princesses and castles. Neither the famous “Dungeons & Dragons” game. In fact, our Dragons’ Den event is very much based on the TV show with the same name.
The winners of our Idea Lab challenges have five minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel, our jury of dragons (we know what you’re thinking and we are sorry to disappoint you, but they don’t dress up like dragons).
The teams have to convince the dragons why their idea is worth the investment; in truth, what they are really asking for is resources such as time, monetary investment and further support.
After the pitch, the jury has the opportunity to ask questions to the presenters and then, after some time of reflection and discussions, choose the winner.
The Exponential team usually works with the winners as they have a high chance of turning their solution into a product or service. At the same time, they are enrolled in the Exponential Bonus programme, which means the teams are eligible for a reward because of their entrepreneurial thinking.
More concretely, they receive a percentage of the revenues. We believe this a nice and fair initiative because, at the end of the day, it’s their idea and hard work on the project.
Partnerships and Scouting
Another concept the Exponential team works on is sourcing or scouting of smaller companies, startups, fintechs, regtechs; basically, any company whose value proposition is highly aligned with our business needs.
The Exponential team actively searches for such companies and develops an alliance with them. Beautifully put, it’s a symbiotic relationship to quite an extent as we get to borrow their technology, agility, and ability to bring some of our products to life or to develop them, while we provide them with our business knowledge and market trust.
And that’s how, thanks to this relationship, we hope to deliver a new product or service for PwC Luxembourg in a short amount of time.
To facilitate this, the Exponential team has organised an event called “Breakfast with Startups”. The main goal was for it to be an icebreaker of sorts as typically our people don’t collaborate with a startup on a daily basis. Several startups were invited to our premises to present themselves, answer any questions and, more importantly, have an open conversation with our intrapreneurs.
Reaping the return on investment
Implementing intrapreneurship initiatives comes with its own set of challenges. Time (or lack of) is a major one, as everybody, because of the nature and size of our organisation, tends to be fully booked. Having the best resources and skills available at the right time and at the right place can also be difficult at times.
Then, there is discipline. Innovation calls for a mindset change and the ability to constantly adapt the way of working and operating. This is where training and education become crucial. Organisations should train their people so they develop the skills and the mindset needed to turn them into intrapreneurs.
To conclude, the recipe for materialising innovation and intrapreneurship isn’t a standard one that requires an organisation to follow each step rigorously or the whole thing will be ruined.
Instead, it should depend on the culture, the business and the client’s needs. However, as with all recipes, there are some key ingredients: a lot of flexibility, a structured approach and a well-outlined framework.
What we think
To me, intrapreneurship is really like working for PwC, but augmented. To the working life and career development associated with it, one has the chance to bring ideas and solutions as if you were your own entrepreneur. Our people take part in our initiatives and really enjoy them, which shows that if you create the possibility for them, they’ll take it.