They call it the “Hackathon.” Every few months, Facebook’s cadre of engineers, designers – even the cleaning crew –host an innovation all-nighter. Yes, it sounds a bit like a high school sleepover, but there’s certainly a purpose beyond the junk food, socializing, and bloodshot eyes. Hackathons are intrapreneurship incubators. Gathered on couches with laptops, soft drinks, and takeout Chinese in hand, professional and amateur hackers alike are encouraged to dream the next big thing for the social media platform, transforming the dream into code. Facebook’s Hackathons only have two rules: 1. Dream outside of your day job, and 2. Hack. Like that “Like Button” on your Facebook page? You can thank a Hackathon for the innovation.
It’s an elegant idea. Encourage the members of your corporate team to function like in-house entrepreneurs. Yes, entrepreneurs, as in, business risk-takers. Innovators. Start-ups. Now for businesses with research and development divisions, the idea of in-house entrepreneurship may seem redundant or even a waste of time. Why would you ever want the kid who troubleshoots the problems with your hard drive getting near your design team’s domain? Well, here’s the thing…the kid replacing your deep-sixed hard drive with a new one may be the next Bill Gates, that is, a garage tinkerer. Have you ever thought about the number of digital gurus who made it big without computer science degrees from Harvard, MIT, or Oxford? Consider this tidbit: Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, like Bill Gates, were college dropouts.
For the professionals on your team, the opportunity to drive “outside their lanes” may be alluring and liberating too. What can an accountant offer a conversation about marketing or product development? You’ll never know unless you invite the accountant to join the conversation from time to time. Conversely, how could a marketing professional benefit a discussion on cost centers and accounting practices? If your marketing professional is passionate about your business, your products, your cause, they may already be thinking about ways to improve the “bottom line,” keeping the business model lean, progressive, and sustainable.
Beyond Lip Service
Many companies talk about innovation for the sake of innovation. Will talk alone spur your team to dream the next big dream that will dazzle your market? Probably not. Innovation and intrapreneurship require investment, courage, and thick skin. For the business, there must be intentionality. Incubation of new ideas and new products flourish in environments that cultivate an atmosphere of openness to new ideas and support of those who dream them. By now you’re well aware of Facebook’s approach to intrapreneurship. What’s your company’s approach? Are your top performers and entry-level employees empowered to put their good ideas into motion? Are there mechanisms in place for the effective communication of ideas? Are team members rewarded when the good ideas generate bigtime buzz and momentum? Do you have your team members in the right “slots” in the office? If the accountant can out “R and D” the R and D team, you’ve got your accountant in the wrong position.
For the intrapreneur, it’s important to hone presentations skills, sharpen the elbows, and weather the “hits.” If you’re communication skills are lackluster, enlist some help from those who know to communicate a vision. You may have the best idea since Cheese Whiz in your mind, but if you can only articulate it with crayons and notebook paper, you’re sunk. Also, recognize that many companies are innovation-resistant. While “this is the way we’ve always done it” isn’t always overtly communicated by the decision makers, is often implied. Your idea will be challenged. You will be told NO! far more often than maybe. Deal with it and keeping plugging away. As for the sharpened elbows, remember that you need to get to the decision maker in the corner office if your idea is going to go anywhere in the first place. If your company doesn’t currently have an inhouse system to support intrapreneurship, you may be the one compelled to create it. When your idea is finally embraced, do the rest of your team of favor… encourage the decision makers to retool the business for intrapreneurship. Now get it out there and stir the pot!