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Innovation strategy: what role should intrapreneurship play?

By Anais Descleves - 03 June 2022

In the last decade, big European corporates have invested more and more in innovation. Intrapreneurship, the development of entrepreneurial projects by employees within an existing company – is one of the many forms of corporate innovation that have emerged. As any other initiative, it has advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses. How big of a part should intrapreneurship play in your innovation strategy?

To answer this question, Early Metrics has asked two expert clients from its network to share their experience: Virginie Coll, Internal Accelerator & Innovation Manager at Safran, and Adrien Broué, Innovation Manager – Innovation Executive at Groupe Bouygues.

Below we present a summary of the interview, highlighting key lessons you should keep in mind. You can also watch our replay of the interview (in French):

👉 Watch the replay 👈

About our experts

Adrien Broué is part of the innovation executive department for Bouygues, “E-Lab”, and manages the intrapreneurial programme “Les entrepreneur(e)s”. This programme aims to accelerate the group’s cultural transformation, by pushing the adoption of entrepreneurial approches by its employees. The programme has generated almost 200 applications and 19 projects, of which five were financed.

Virginie Coll manages the intrapreneurship project accelerator at Safran. The “We love entrepreneurs” programme has been generating innovation for four years now. Safran is very focused on developing new technologies and it created this intrapreneurship programme to offer new ways of innovating. Around 1,000 employees participated in this programme in 2021, and more than 250 of them have put forward ideas from 15 different countries. Twenty projects have been incubated and four projects were accelerated so far.

Antoine Baschiera is the co-founder of Early Metrics, the leading startup rating agency. Early Metrics has also developed a rating system for intrapreneurial projects to give an independent review to the companies running such programmes.

What should companies aim for with intrapreneurial projects?

The essential question for intrapreneurial programmes is how to set objectives. Should they be about innovation or about human resources? 

For Safran, the first objective was to create new business activities and innovative projects with high added value for the company. Virginie Coll points out that, along the way, her team realised that “it was not the destination that mattered, it was the journey and how we experienced it”. In the end, the programme brought more benefits to human resources rather than new business activities. It fostered a cultural transformation within Safran, revealing “change markers” and cultivating employee engagement within the company.

There’s a convergence of objectives between Safran and Bouygues. Indeed, when launched five years prior, the principal goal of Bouygues’ programmes was to innovate. The programme revealed that, just like with regular startups, finding the right idea for an innovative and promising intrapreneurial project is usually difficult. Despite this difficulty, Adrien Broué explains that “participants were satisfied to have been able to take part in the project, in the training, and to have learned new ways of working along the way”. The programme now has two objectives: support innovation and drive employee engagement within the company.

According to Antoine Baschiera, the expected results from an intrapreneurial programme may vary depending on the type of governance assigned to the programme. He gave the example of Airbus: its innovation programme, called “BizLab” is seeking to create solutions to solve existing issues. The programme is made for the company’s employees, but not only, as external individuals or companies may apply. Therefore, this approach does not aim to motivate employees, but rather to create new solutions that are applicable in a short time span.

How does an intrapreneurial programme play out?

As we mentioned previously, every company manages its intrapreneurial programme differently, according to its resources and objectives. Virginie Coll and Adrien Broué explained how intrapreneurship is structured and managed within their company:

Intrapreneurship at Bouygues

Adrien Broué indicates that the intrapreneurial programme at Bougyues is divided in three phases:

  1. Ideation
  2. Maturing
  3. Acceleration

The ideation phase lasts about three months. This phase is structured for participants to “understand the issues and find solutions”, to build their project. After having reviewed the participants’ plan for action, 30% of projects are selected to go on to the maturing phase. During this phase, the employees will create the first version of their solution. This phase will last for 50% of the entire programme, around six months. It will then be evaluated, and 10% of the projects will go on to the acceleration phase. It is therefore a long programme, with structured exit routes.

The way the programme is financed is also segmented. The employees use the same system of traditional fundraisings but will rely on internal sponsors who “allow them to centralise the expenses and to give them leverage” to launch their project. In doing so, the multi-part structure of the programme and of the financing allows the company to limit risks and prioritise projects with potential.

Intrapreneurial projects at Safran

Safran also has a long programme but in two parts. The first part, the “Bootcamp”, aims at selecting and incubating projects. Employees are invited to submit their idea on a platform. Once the ideas are posted, a selection committee will choose 12 ideas, and the rest of the participants votes for the 13th.

Those who are selected build their team and then present their project in front of a jury. The selected teams can next be incubated via three bootcamps, or 12 days of training. This training is certified by Safran University, so all participants receive a diploma which can be useful for their careers. By the end of the training, all participants present their new projects in front of the members of the Executive Committee. All finalists integrate the second phase of the programme, the “Booster”.

During the second phase, the participants become full-time intrapreneurs for one to three years. They receive an annual budget for their project, on top of their salary, which they are free to administrate as they please. They can also find sponsors within the group, who will take on the role of investors or mentors.

Key questions for a successful intrapreneurial programme

How do you define the programme’s themes? 

Virginie Coll explains that innovation and R&D at Safran follow very structured guidelines with themes and defined strategies. Therefore, the intrapreneurial programme was made to go beyond these guidelines and give more freedom to employees to find ideas which “are not always catalogued in the company’s roadmap”. Safran’s teams are usually focused on technology, so participants are invited to go beyond technology and explore uncharted territories.

However, Bouygues adopted a different strategy for its programme. The participants have a given scope of innovation and work on cross-section topics during the creation of their new offer. This way, Bouygues’ executive branch can guide the topics, whereas Safran pushes the participants to explore the unknown.

Which department has the final word?

For Safran, the programme is co-piloted by the human resources, the communication department, and the different presidents of Safran’s holdings. Members of the Executive Committee are designated to be part of the jury that assesses the intrapreneurial projects.

On the other hand, Bouygues’ programme is managed by three committees: the human resources, the communication department and cross-department management. However, it is the CEO, the COO and the exploration directors who have the final word on which projects should continue or stop.

What exit routes are possible?

At Safran, there are several options for intrapreneurial projects. They can end half-way through if it is decided that the project is stagnant. Even if the project does not go all the way, the programme would have allowed the participants to gain visibility within the company and acted as a stepping stone for their careers. Excubation is also a possibility, but it has not occurred yet in this programme. Finally, it is possible to create a subsidiary company to run the project and make it grow, or to transfer it to another branch of the company.

For Adrien Broué, all possible outcomes are possible, depending on the project (creating a subsidiary, spin-off, business unit, etc). The project is still Bouygues’ and there is no preferred exit route. The spin-off option, however, can be “delicate to handle, because of intellectual property and competition questions”.

How should you manage the participants?

Intrapreneurial programmes can be complicated to manage, because of the wide range of profiles who are involved. For Bouygues, HR plays an important role in dealing with this matter. According to Adrien Broué, the key is “to be transparent and not to overpromise to intrapreneurs”. Indeed, the intrapreneurs’ objectives and the company’s strategy must be in line.

According to Virginie Coll, Safran’s motto is “first decide who, then what”. The group’s programme is managed with the mindset of creating a dynamic team where participants learn to align with one another and advance together. She acknowledges that there may be some “relational friction”. That is why the programme includes two types of support: for the project and for the team, to better handle relationships. Sponsors also take up the role of mentors, which makes them grow as well, and allows them to practice a different kind of management. Virginie Coll explains: “We believe that innovating and experimenting differently allows us to bring value to the company and its clients”.

Early Metrics’ rating: a tool to help make the right decision for intrapreneurship

Consequently, among all the obstacles we can encounter along the journey of intrapreneurship, we could mention:

  • matching open innovation needs
  • measuring the value of the projects
  • making decisions on whether to continue or stop the project
  • protecting the group’s dynamics…

To tackle all these challenges, backtesting and constant improvement allow companies to calibrate projects and to achieve higher results. Therefore Early Metrics’ rating can help intrapreneurial programme managers “measure the potential of projects to support important decisions”.

Translated from French by Robin Vettier

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