Spend a few years working for the same employer and even the most exciting job can eventually feel limiting and monotonous. As the allure of new challenges wears off, you find yourself daydreaming about quitting if only to keep your skills fresh in a rapidly changing job market.
But forgoing job security is far from the only way to jump-start a sluggish career. To try your hand at something new while keeping your gainful employment, consider intrapreneurship.
Like entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship is the practice of rapidly spinning up novel solutions to complex problems. But while entrepreneurs launch new ventures to solve external problems in society and the business world at large, the focus of the intrapreneur is internal, exploring opportunities to improve things inside the organisation they work for. These employees prepare compelling business cases and sometimes assemble strike teams to experiment with new approaches to "business as usual". They are given the resources and autonomy to build and test these processes, products, services, and systems for the benefit of their employer.
You may have heard of intrapreneurship by other names: hackathons, skunkworks, sandbox funds, innovation hubs, incubation labs. While these may sound like trendy new concepts that would never fly at a conservative workplace, intrapreneurship is actually a time-tested tactic that finds itself in very good company: 3M's Post-it Notes, Facebook's Like button, and Lockheed Martin's F-22 Raptor and SR-71 Blackbird aircraft are all examples of internal innovation incubated outside of normal work process.
Perhaps the best-known example of corporate intrapreneurship is Google's 20% Project, intended to encourage employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal and creative endeavours to boost innovation and employee retention. It is no surprise that the home of the 20% Project is also the birthplace of Gmail, the most widely used product in the history of email.
Not every skunkworks scheme will become the next Gmail, but any company that does not innovate risks becoming the next Blockbuster.
So how do you ditch your career rut while convincing your boss to let you be a workplace hero?
Start with a why
Begin, as all good ideas do, with why. There are several very good reasons to innovate from within.
Staying sharp through upskilling and knowledge transfer
Some job skills have a sell-by date. By working on new projects outside your usual functional area, you gain exposure and an introduction to new and valuable skillsets, opinion leaders, and technology platforms.
At the same time, your colleagues in other business units benefit by sharing information and cross-pollinating the different tactics internal teams use to analyse problems and design solutions.
Increasing engagement and motivation
If you are feeling bored at work, focusing on innovation can reignite a sense of excitement and new possibilities by helping you see old problems with fresh eyes. Additionally, the attention and recognition that comes with "unorthodox" projects translates to renewed inspiration and engagement, especially as your ideas gain traction and your work is recognised for its positive contribution to the company's future.
Contributing to innovation and market leadership
No company wants to be last in line when the market shifts. Business leaders know that stagnation means death, but large companies struggle with innovation because they get caught up in doing what they have always done, the way they have always done it.
This is called organisational inertia, but intrapreneurship breaks that cycle by spinning up new ideas, products, and services to stay agile and competitive in the marketplace.
Earning respect and relevance through self-promotion
Speaking of leadership, intrapreneurship provides a visible platform to communicate your value and make yourself indispensable. New initiatives often put the people behind them on the radar of executives. After all, these executives have dedicated valuable company resources, time, and money to support your efforts.
Now you have their attention, too, and they are going to want to hear how that new project is going. This chance to impress your peers and superiors can become the career opportunity of a lifetime, because how your colleagues perceive you is one of the most significant factors in your success — even more so than skills and experience, as documented by workplace researcher and speaker Dan Schawbel in his bestselling book, Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.
Move to a what
A good way to come up with ideas for internal skunkworks is to list what you already dislike or find inefficient about your company. Even better is involving others in your brainstorming by asking your colleagues what they wish they could change. For example, are you annoyed by your company's outdated human resources software? Does a business process add too much unnecessary time and not enough value?
Talk to others, determine if the sentiment is shared, explore alternate ideas from adjacent teams, and propose solutions by testing innovations to research and implement, such as:
Instead of feeling anxious and paralysed by the prospect of artificial intelligence making human jobs obsolete, take charge of the inevitable disruption by helping lead the change. This way, you emerge as an indispensable subject-matter expert while facilitating a crucial transformation for your employer.
Explore what automation projects are already in the works and see if you can get involved. If there is nothing underway, help your company get ahead of the curve by proposing to try out a new tool to solve an unmet business need.
With so much change coming to finance, how can you help your company and colleagues adapt smoothly and productively? Your executives are likely asking themselves the same question. Help them answer it by offering to explore current and future changes that are likely to cause friction, along with novel methods and techniques to mitigate their impact.
In the process, you will collaborate and problem-solve with many different teams, educate yourself on some of today's most pressing workplace issues, and gain essential change management skills in an era of rapid innovation.
The practice of pairing executives with junior staff to facilitate the exchange of ideas and expertise is a tactic pioneered by General Electric in the 1990s. Legendary Chairman and CEO Jack Welch sought to teach his company leadership about the technological advances reshaping his industry. Chief among these was the internet, a revolution that GE's senior executives struggled to grasp, and which its junior employees were exceptionally well equipped to explain.
Today, reverse mentoring can be used by companies to teach essential digital skills such as social media and artificial intelligence.
Reverse mentoring can even help companies tap into new ways to attract new talent. Data from postsecondary and MBA programmes shows that Millennials and Generation Z are increasingly less interested in pursuing careers in financial services, which poses an existential threat to finance departments struggling to recruit top talent to remain competitive.
A skunkworks initiative that pairs hiring managers with junior-level employees directly addresses pain points in talent acquisition and succession planning, helps the company stay relevant, keeps leadership in touch with today's business trends, and gives less experienced colleagues a chance to emerge as leaders.
Plan the how
A fruitful conversation about taking on a new assignment — especially one that is outside your company's usual way of doing business — takes serious preparation. While it may be tempting to complain that you are bored and uninspired, you should keep this crucial conversation focused on solutions and possibilities: solutions for business problems and possibilities for your career. An ideal container for this type of conversation is a goal-setting meeting with your boss.
Talking about job aspirations and career planning is an essential conversation that too few employees have with their managers — but the ones who do have that conversation end up seeing their professional prospects skyrocket. When is the last time you sat down with your manager to talk about where you want your career to go and what work experiences would best position you to reach those goals? If the answer is never, it is past time to book that meeting.
At the meeting, start with the "why" from this article to help your boss understand the business case behind your idea. Next, research the "what" as it relates to your company — or come up with your own project ideas.
A great way to generate problems worth solving is to talk to colleagues. Propose a plan that details not just the problems, but the solutions you envision. Your proposal may not be what you ultimately end up incubating, but the first step is simply to kick off the conversation.
Anastasia Uglova is a communications and personal branding consultant based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.
"Top Finance Skills", a series of Q&As with finance and business leaders, FM magazine