Acton Institute Powerblog

Celebrating ‘intrapreneurship’: The power of employee-innovators

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In our pursuit of economic prosperity and progress, we tend to focus heavily on the role of the entrepreneur—and rightly so. Many of the world’s most transformative discoveries have come from people willing to take significant risks and endure painful sacrifices to bring new enterprises to life.

When it comes to our theology of work, our focus tends toward much of the same. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the call of the entrepreneur provides a uniquely vivid example of how our economic activity ought to intersect and integrate with our God-given capacity for creative service. Yet many of these same attributes apply well beyond those who found or lead businesses.

What of the everyday employees who are working and serving within existing enterprises? Are they not also “creative” or “innovative,” capable of their own degrees of risk-taking and pioneering, even if it occurs within pre-existing job roles and institutional structures? Are these workers not also created to create—to cooperate with and transform nature for the glory of God and the life of the world?

In his book, Driving Innovation from Within, Kaihan Krippendorff reminds us of the unique value provided by “intrapreneurs” and “employee-innovators”—those who may not share the typical storyline of the archetypal entrepreneur but nevertheless manage to transform our economy through wise stewardship of new ideas.

“A myth persists that innovators fit a certain mold,” Krippendorff writes, in an extended excerpt at Stanford Social Innovation Review. “He (usually a man rather than a woman) is typically a young entrepreneur who gets an idea in college, moves to the West Coast, enters a garage with a small team, builds a solution, and launches an innovation that changes the world. Peruse any ‘most innovative’ list, and you will find this mythical innovator eerily prevalent.”

Our “hero narrative” of innovation has become far too narrow, Krippendorff argues, built on romantic notions of hustling away in garages or ditching day jobs to “become one’s own boss.” There’s a reason the story sticks. “It speaks to the power of human will,” he explains, “unifies public sentiment behind the ideas of a better world, fresh thinking, freedom, and self-realization—all while also promising wealth.”

Yet such entrepreneurs are but one set of participants in the bigger picture of creative discovery. Krippendorff points to a survey from Wharton Business School, which sought to uncover the 30 inventions that have “changed life most dramatically during the past thirty years.” In observing the results, Krippendorff notes that “only eight of the thirty most transformative innovations were first conceived by entrepreneurs; twenty-two were conceived by employees.” Further, “they pursued their innovations, often later in life, not in small teams but in broader communities, not as independent entrepreneurs but inside large organizations, driven not by profit but by a passion to make a difference.”

Take Elliott Berman, who pioneered several advancements in solar energy throughout the 1970s, all as a longstanding employee of Exxon. Due to his intra-company status and the collaborative nature of his efforts, few would recognize his name. His story doesn’t fit the modern mythical path, and yet his contributions to his field were tremendous. “With a fierce belief in his idea, he significantly changed his slice of the world, and he did it without quitting his job,” Krippendorrf writes.

It’s an insight that ought to expand our perspective in other ways, as well. These innovators are not typically successful without larger support networks and communal collaboration—all working together to innovate and improve on ideas. And this doesn’t just apply to the give-and-take among those working within existing enterprises. It also applies to collaboration with other businesses, whether through competitive energy or more intentional partnerships. “Only two of the thirty innovations were scaled by the original creators,” Krippendorrf explains. “More than 50 percent of the time (16 out of 30) the innovator loses control of the innovation. Competitors take over. Then, through a battle of players seeking to commercialize the innovation, the innovation scales.”

Such a perspective would also benefit from the insights shared in Jordan Ballor and Victor Claar’s recent paper on “creativity” vs. “innovation.” Ballor and Claar note that while some economists focus on creativity (i.e. fresh new discoveries made by “creative geniuses” of industry), others look more closely at long-term, incremental innovation (i.e. building on and re-applying pre-existing discoveries to meet new needs in new ways). Such a distinction is valuable for entrepreneur and intrapreneur alike, serving (again) to widen our perspective about how progress might actually comes about.

For Krippendorff, this is the key benefit of celebrating such work. “It is important that we recognize these mostly forgotten employee-innovators,” he writes. “Without them, we would live in a far less advanced world, without mobile phones or the internet, without MRIs or stents, without microfinance or effective solar energy. I wrote this book to celebrate employee-innovators. Society needs more of them.”

Yet the perspective is also critical for the employee-innovators themselves. Alas, I fear that far too many employees are quick to ignore the creative and innovative aspects of their daily work, resigning such energies instead to the entrepreneurs who take bigger risks or receive the louder acclaim for their ideas and improvements. In truth, that same creative and innovative spirit is alive and well in each of us, and we need not tailor our lives to the latest Silicon Valley folklore to offer our own gifts to neighbors.

With a greater understanding of how innovation actually works—through mundane discovery across generations and entire economic ages, whether inside or outside existing enterprises—we begin to see our role in the broader story, bringing all the “divine” implications along the way.

When we better understand our God-given role as creators and innovators—wherever and whatever our work may be—we might just begin to act like them.

Image: Factory workers at Armstrongs (Public Domain)

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.