For the last four years, I have dedicated my career to answering two questions:
- Are entrepreneurs society’s innovators or can employees innovate as well?
- How can employees unlock their innovative potential at work?
The answer to the first question is clear. Employees have been, by far, the greatest contributors to society’s most impactful innovations … and there is no indication that will change. If you want to engage in work that inspires you, bring innovations to market, and impact the world, you don’t have to quit your job to make this happen. Doing so as an employee is a doable and attractive option.
As to the “how,” the answer begins with what I call “intent.” Many frustrated would-be internal entrepreneurs have lost the intent to innovate. They have been frustrated so many times, their ideas being batted down, that they have simply given up.
But if we look at those who succeed at driving innovations from within, we see that they direct their efforts in a particular way. By doing so, they are less likely to have their efforts rebuffed, have their innovations fail, or run out of steam along the way. Their impact, and the fun they have pursuing innovation, soars.
What is the trick?
Most of the 150+ internal entrepreneurs I interviewed for my most recent book, Driving Innovation from Within, talked about “knowing where to look” for innovation and searching for ideas that meet three types of needs:
- Market needs: Customer pain points, industry inefficiencies
- Organizational needs: What will help your organization achieve its mission, strategy, priorities, etc.
- Personal needs: What your passions and talent call you to do
To apply this framework, you want to brainstorm numerous potential areas in which to innovate, then sort out the ones that meet all three needs.
Most entrepreneurs start with market needs looking for “pain points” that customers complain about or areas in which the industry is broken. One pain point in pharmaceuticals, for example, is that people with multiple prescriptions have to make multiple trips to drugstores and often get confused with which pills to take when.
Recognizing this, a pharmacist named TJ Parker launched an innovative initiative from within his father’s pharmacy called PillPack, which delivers your prescriptions, in a roll of plastic “packs,” each with a date and time containing precisely the pills you needed to take. He sold it to Amazon last year for just under $1b.
While an entrepreneur can serve just one customer, an internal entrepreneurs serves two – their employer and the end user. Assessing market needs may lead to an idea that customers want, but if meeting this need does not also help your employer achieve a need it cares about, you can expect it to be rejected.
No good marketer would blame a customer for turning down her new product offering (she would instead seek to better understand her customers and change her offering accordingly). Similarly, successful internal entrepreneurs seek to more intimately understand what their organizations need.
In other words, to succeed, you want to understand your organization’s mission, goals, and priorities. Less than 55% of mid-level managers can name even two of their company’s strategic priorities (according to a study by researchers Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull). Your efforts to innovate can go a long way by taking some simple steps to better understand your organizational needs.
When Kevin Systrom, the cofounder of Instagram, announced he would be leaving Facebook, which had acquired Instagram, to begin searching for a new business idea, he said, “Building new things requires that we step back, understand what inspires us and match that with what the world needs.”
To empower yourself with the stamina to see an innovation through the barriers it will inevitably face, pick an idea that not only meets your customers’ and organization’s needs, but also links to your passions or unique skills.
To apply this framework and rapidly and dramatically improve your chances of innovation success, take four steps:
- Brainstorm market needs.
- Interview 5 customers and ask them what “pain points” they feel
- Speak to industry experts and read industry reports to identify where the industry is stuck or inefficient
- Brainstorm organizational needs.
- Read through your organization’s strategic plan and brainstorm areas that could help it better achieve its mission and priorities
- Set up meetings with five managers more senior than you, preferably those who have been with the company for more than a year, and ask what they see as the organization’s needs
- Brainstorm personal needs.
- Think about what purpose inspires you and what unique skills you have by looking at when in the past you have been most inspired or felt most successful
- Ask friends what they see as your passions and skills
- Find the sweet spot.
- Go through each idea and ask whether it meets the three criteria: market need, organizational need, personal need
- Create a list of all those that meet all three … then get to work!
Following these steps will help you seek innovations in more fertile ground, find a mission that makes a difference, inspires you, and that your organization will support. Ultimately helping you change the world without quitting your job.