Simone Ahuja, Founder of Blood Orange and Columnist at HBR, shares how companies can retain and empower entrepreneurial employees and what intrapreneurs can do to break through bureaucracy.
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Mike Fishbein: Hey, I'm your host, Mike Fishbein. This is Product Management Podcast produced by Alpha. Welcome back. On this episode, I'll be speaking with Simone Ahuja, the founder of Blood Orange, an innovation and strategy advisory firm. Simone is an HPR columnist who serves as an advisor to MIT's Practical Impact Alliance. She'll explain how one of the core aspects of most innovation initiatives is actually a flaw, who and where intrapreneurs, and what large organizations can do to reap the benefits of intrapreneurship.
Simone Ahuja: My name is Simone Ahuja. I'm an innovation strategist and author of a upcoming book called, Disrupt it Yourself: Hacking the Corporation to Keep it Fast, Fluid, and Frugal, also co-author of a book that's been published already called Jugaad Innovation, which is really about frugal innovation, high value, low cost innovations inspired by emerging markets but very squarely for emerged economy companies and enterprises looking at how to create higher value at low cost.
The new book that I'm writing is about intrapreneurship, so how can companies be more startup-like and what's the role of the intrapreneurs in the companies? What are the characteristics that they have and what is it that companies can do to really help facilitate their actions, and further, why is this really important for companies to pay attention to these people because they're in there, but they're not always given the attention that they need? Intrapreneurship is product management.
Mike Fishbein: Cracking the code to innovation within a large organization is a recurring theme of this show. I'm really excited to learn about Simone's perspective on the topic. Before that, though, I asked her to share her background and journey into the field.
Simone Ahuja: So, mine is a, I would say, webbed and organic experience and background. I actually started out in healthcare and from healthcare moved into ethnography, so really left healthcare by and large to start thinking about what's happening in emerging economies like India, China, Brazil, and so on. This was in the early 2000s before these markets were really accepted as economic superpowers and paid attention to in the way that they are now.
That ethnographic research led to a lot of large firms asking me to help share the market knowledge that we were developing by really getting into the markets and getting right next to consumers and understanding what their needs are, and specifically, I was helping Best Buy understand how people in resource-constrained environments solve big problems. That became a very interesting series of learnings and case studies that ultimately became a TV series on PBS and more companies wanting to learn about it. This led to some blogs that I wrote with a couple of co-authors on the Harvard Business Review online, which led to my book and building a consulting practice out. So it really just was a very organic but pretty natural process as I reflect back on it.
Mike Fishbein: Simone's experiences have helped her develop an ethnographic approach to the discipline, closely studying how people achieve breakthrough innovation in resource-constrained environments. So what exactly is intrapreneurship today and who is actually doing it?
Simone Ahuja: Intrapreneurship is really the art of behaving like an entrepreneur in the large enterprise. A lot of firms nowadays are talking about startup-like culture. How do we actually behave more like a startup and why they want to do that? Well, of course it's because there are lots of startups around that have access to tremendous amounts of technology. They can deliver things, whether it's physical product or something else, in a way that they could never do that before. So as companies are really realizing that they need to be more nimble, more frugal, more startup-like, everybody's taking a look at intrapreneurship, and that's exactly what this is.
So how does the intrapreneur in the company, how does an entrepreneur-like person function even if they're in a big company, and then ho does a firm, a large firm, support those intrapreneurs? And before that, I would say identify them because they're in there. What often happens with intrapreneurs is these are folks who are really passionate about their issues that they see. So it could be something in their family. It could be something that they see in consumers that they work with, and they become very passionate about a problem that they want to solve.
But often companies, especially large and legacy-based companies, have very specific models to address the needs of their existing consumer base, and so if you take a different approach, it's very hard to retrofit into it, and this becomes in a way a kind of a threat to companies. So, while companies want this kind of behavior and this kind of thinking that's more fast, fluid, and frugal and more startup-like, they don't necessarily have the processes or the design in place that allows the flexibility and the support and kind of the loose structure that allows the intrapreneurs to get from an idea to a commercialized solution.
Mike Fishbein: Driven by competition from nimble and savvy startups, large organizations are focused on creating environments that enable and encourage entrepreneurial-minded employees to innovate. On the surface, this sounds pretty straightforward. What's so difficult about it and why are established companies struggling?
Simone Ahuja: Well, I'll tell you why, first of all, why I'm deeply researching intrapreneurship. First of all is, because as I've been consulting in innovation for several years, what I'm seeing is that while front-end innovation or essentially ideation or thinking about new solutions can always be improved, I think that people are starting to understand different approaches to get there that are more closely linked to end users and they're becoming closer and closer to relevant solutions. The real struggle that I see is there's an inability to execute on ideas.
Sometimes most companies have great ideas in them. They certainly have great people in them, but the question is, how do we actually execute on those ideas? How do we actually move them forward in what can be a labyrinthine organization with very fixed processes? In terms of being fast and frugal, there are two reasons to this. So customers are becoming more demanding. After the downturn, in particular, people want more high value solutions that are really tailored to their needs. And I would say the second reason is because when we have big budgets attached to things, we all of a sudden have big processes attached to things.
So what I think and I found in my research and observed real time in my own consulting practice is that when we have smaller budgets and fast and frugal projects where they're more like experiments rather than massive initiatives getting rolled off out across the entire organization, we can fly under the radar. We can have framework. We can have support maybe in some senior air cover, but we don't have something that's very tight and that's very inure to the existing models and approaches of the organization because as soon as you do that, typically you're going to go back to business as usual.
Most companies that I talk to right now always ask me, "Well, how do we get to breakthrough innovation and how do we get to even disruptive innovation?" Worst way, probably the slowest way to breakthrough and even disruptive innovation is business as usual.
Mike Fishbein: Big budgets are often accompanied by tons of processes, Simone explains. Counterintuitively, keeping efforts frugal could remove many of the roadblocks to innovation within a large organization. So who is an intrapreneur, and how can companies ensure that they benefit from the shift?
Simone Ahuja: I think we're all familiar with entrepreneurs and really an intrapreneur is someone who functions like an entrepreneur in the large organization, and an intrapreneurial organization can be a large firm that really supports intrapreneurship. They start to become more startup-like. Can a large firm really be startup-like through and through? Probably not, especially not legacy-based companies, but can there be pieces of that company that's more startup-like? Certainly, and we're seeing that happen more and more all the time.
And you asked me about characteristics. So characteristics of intrapreneurs, the first thing I'll say very clearly, and this has emerged in my research over and over again, is passion and purpose. Now interestingly, in my first book this emerged too. So who are these frugal innovators? Who are these people that have literally in some cases almost nothing that are still finding solutions to even really pressing problems, and it was the sixth principle of jugaad innovation or frugal innovation for us. Follow your heart, right.
So, it's the passion, but I always used to say it kind of under my breath because it sounded so soft. It didn't sound like something that people could really sink their teeth into, like the principles of simplicity and inclusivity, for example, but now with this new book, it's become so clear to me that passion is at the center of intrapreneur efforts. And the ones, especially the ones that succeed and reach innovation status, meaning it finds broad acceptance by the marketplace, it's not just something that someone thought of. This is really central.
So it's that passion people have, the purpose they have is I think most fundamental. They're typically not satisfied with the status quo. They're typically driven by the excitement of finding solutions to big problem. Typically, they're really great at enlisting and enrolling other people on the idea of co-design. They understand that it's not about if you help me, this is why it'd be great for me and maybe even the end user, but they really help people understand why is this great for everyone and why do you want to be a part of this initiative?
There are a lot of hard and soft skills that intrapreneurs typically have that get them to where they're going. I'll share one example with you of an intrapreneur I met several years ago who was at an energy company. He was a product developer there, but then he moved on to work at Medtronic in their diabetes division. Now, what's unique about this person ... his name is Lane Desborough, is that he has a son with type 1 diabetes, and that's part of the reason that he went to work in diabetes, to help really crack some of the major issues faced by diabetics in the world today.
One of the big issues that Lane had is that, like many parents all over the world who are trying to manage their children's blood sugar, he'd be up late into the night, he and his wife, because there were no really good ways to communicate, for examples, with smartphones to monitor blood sugar, and the traditional monitoring devices didn't communicate with smartphones. Once he moved into this role at Medtronic, he really started thinking about, okay, we have these units that monitor blood sugar, but they're big and they're bulky and they're expensive. What can we do about it? But that wasn't necessarily a focus of the company.
Still, that didn't matter to Lane. He kept on going on the side and really hacking a solution along with, he found an ecosystem all over the world of diabetes dads and moms, they call themselves, who were really trying to figure out ways to monitor and in some cases deliver insulin, basically find solutions that just weren't out there. So they were essentially DIY enthusiasts who were hacking lifesaving solutions on their own time, with their own money based on the needs of their families and those closest to them because there was a huge gap that was just not addressed by larger medical device companies, whether it was a J&J or GE or Medtronic.
Now, what they essentially did, this ad hoc group of mostly parents around the world, was created a cloud-based monitoring solution. It was a fast and frugal solution that was held together with duct tape and a couple of $8 sensors. This was so powerful because it solved this problem of ... If you could imagine yourself as an adolescent, being tethered to a large machine, or your parents to monitor your blood sugar, you probably can't think of anything worse at that age. Right? So, now, you have a more elegant solution, relatively. It's still duct tape and a couple of $8 sensors, but relatively you have a solution now that allows you to go to a soccer game alone, sleep over at a friends house. These are really powerful solutions that were developed.
Some people would say this is frightening. This isn't FDA approved, your support is on a Facebook page. But, these gaps really exist. The companies don't necessarily want to address them. Sometimes because they don't feel it's a need for whatever reason. Sometimes and often, I would say, because it just doesn't retrofit into their business model. For example, if you have a solution that's an App, that's very low cost. So, maybe it's a dollar, maybe it's $4. Then you have a couple of $8 sensors. What's the model for that? If your traditional monitoring system is $3000 and very high margin. It forces you then to think about things that don't already exist. Is this free? Is it freemium? How does it work?
This is what I think was so interesting about Lane, and his folks that he worked with all over the world. They developed this frugal innovation, this prototype, which seems like it would be a massive opportunity for a big company's in a $35 billion sector, like diabetes care. But, the companies at that time didn't respond. That's starting to change. The resources in large companies are starting to move towards this. In this case, originally, Medtronic didn't move towards this response. Ultimately, Lane left Medtronic and started his own company, called Bigfoot Biomedical with someone who was CEO of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, named Jeffrey Brewer, and another fellow named Bryan Mazlish, who was one of the Diabetes Dads, who was using his family closed looped automated insulin delivery systems for years that were hacked together solutions.
This is what happens when companies don't welcome and warmly receive the work of these entrepreneurs. What happens is they leave your company, and they go, and they start their own business that will compete with you directly. You'll be left trying to keep up with them, because they're going to move fast, they're going to move frugally, and they're going to move with great efficiency, with a first mover advantage, and a lot of efficiency behind them. As well as, very, very, very deep knowledge and connection to the end user.
That's a great example of someone who just had that passion and that purpose. Somebody who found a community of others. This is the asset based thinking that a lot of these entrepreneurs have. "Well, if my company doesn't want to do it, it's not necessarily that I can't do it." Or, "If I don't have this resource, where can I find it?" I think this is a great example. I would say, this is a warning to companies. Who are the entrepreneurs in your company? How do you identify them? Are they out there? If they are, how do you acknowledge them, recognize them, and give them a forum to start to develop some of the products and solutions that are needed to serve end customer needs?
Mike Fishbein: Entrepreneurs around every corner, Simone says. They're within every large organization. But, if they're not recognized and given an opportunity, they will still end up innovating, but not for your company. Instead, they'll end up as competitors when they leave. So, how do companies get them to stay?
Simone Ahuja: When we think about entrepreneurs, one of the things I think about is ... people talk about inclusivity a lot. It could be diversity of inclusion. That to me, means many things. One of them is who's working on innovation? Who is it in the company? Are you including potential collaborators outside of the company? Are you including your customers? There's one example that I really appreciate from Stanley Black & Decker. There was someone I had learned about, named Sarah Windham, she was a PR Manager, at Stanley Black & Decker. She started to hack a solution inside the company, because they had an internal platform that invites all employees to innovate.
She didn't have any other pathway beside that. But, she had this idea that she thought was a great one for ecstatic electric cleaning wand. She, as an HR person thought this was a great idea. As a consumer, she didn't necessarily have all the technological expertise. She had obviously a market research background. She had PR background. But, she learned enough to become an armchair expert in technology, in this space that she needed. She went as far as she could, then she enlisted other specialists at the company, who could help her bring this cleaning wand, to at least a prototype stage.
She shared her vision with others in the company, and she ultimately ... she assembled an entire team of 20 people who worked off hours to help her create a prototype from spare parts from the shop floor that was presented to management. This was pretty bare bones, but still that's another key when we think about how do these move through and how do we get to commercialization, prototyping is really powerful? That's come through over and over again through my research.
What she did was, even though she wasn't an innovator per se, the company created a platform where they invited everyone to innovate. And because of her hard and soft skills, she was then able to enlist others, co-design a solution, present it, this fundamentally frugal solution, using her existing assets and relationships, to build something that was actually valuable. Her reward, interestingly was ... had use of a Tesla for a month, which as a car enthusiast she was pretty excited about. But, I think what's interesting is she talks about the way she became almost obsessed with this idea. This was all work that happened off hours.
This actually hasn't been commercialized yet, but what I think is interesting is it starts to create the cultural shift. Right? "Oh, this person from HR, an HR manager actually not only came up with a solution, but won one of our innovation contests. She did it by working off hours. She did it by enrolling other people across the company, maybe I can do it, too." That to me, is a great case study of how you start to create the cultural shift that's required for entrepreneurship.
The other thing I'll say is, sometimes it's better when these things fly under the radar for a while. This is the same thing as why it's important not necessarily to attach a lot of budget to some of these ... the efforts of entrepreneurs. It doesn't mean they don't need other forms of support. The budget typically comes with a lot of other caveats and a lot of other leashes let's say, that will suffocate the efforts of the entrepreneur.
Mike Fishbein: Some simple programs that encourage and reward entrepreneurs can make all the difference for an organization. Simone's example highlights how employees will self organize to work after hours, and they're interested in an opportunity. And can freely sidestep the status quo. It doesn't necessarily require a top down mandate, or process, or budget.
Simone Ahuja: That is really fundamental to the entrepreneurs approach. They're not waiting, they're highly action oriented. They just get started. Because typically, entrepreneurs are looking at solutions that don't have an existing pathway. So, they have to carve out their own path. They often use back channels to get to their solutions. Right? Here's where I think corporations are at a huge advantage. When you put together entrepreneurial skill sets, with some of the other massive benefits of being a part of a large organization, when you get to a point where you're looking at things like commercialization, it's a tremendous opportunity. That's where I think that the corporations can be an advantage, if they acknowledge the value of the entrepreneurs, if they can help to identify them. And when they're there, they can actually give them a loose framework, or rather a loose support, without controlling them.
I'm going to share with you some principles of entrepreneurship, and what really companies can do with entrepreneurs to help them move forward, and obviously it'll help the company move forward, right? Because everybody right now is looking for sustainable growth. We all know there are different flavors of this quote, but essentially 40 to 50% of the Fortune 500 won't exist in 10 years, in the form that they do now. A lot of the big companies know they're at risk. They don't know what to do about it.
Here are some things that can be done to help these entrepreneurs move forward. The first thing is to keep it frugal. That's what we were talking about in the example at [Qualcomm 00:22:01]. And even the example with Bigfoot Biomedical and Lane Desborough, if you attach money to things, sometimes you just suffocate a project. It takes the passion right out of the initiative. If you keep it frugal, you're going to be in a better position sometimes, then well funded initiatives that all of the sudden have a lot of checks and balances, have a lot of people who want to get their fingerprints on it. A lot of people who have to actually weigh in, and suddenly you're getting to a place where it's all about consensus and a lot less about a really, really relevant high value solution.
The second thing that corporations can do, or firms can do, is to make it permission-less. I mentioned this briefly before. While you can do some things to support, like senior leaders really should provide air cover, and they can trust, but verify. They still have to allow the messiness of entrepreneurship to happen. This is familiar to all of us, who have been involved in innovation in any way. You have to allow for this messiness. If you don't allow for that messiness, then you're never really going to get anywhere new. Right? Because these are, uncharted paths. It's better for companies and managers, and leader to think about how do I remove obstacles, rather than have rigid, pre-established paths to retrofit people into.
The third thing that companies can do is include core customers. I think this is really well known to probably most of your listeners. This is really about getting next to the end user, understanding their unmet needs, whether they're articulated, or unarticulated. This is something that is very fundamental to entrepreneurship, because this is about not making assumptions. This is about understanding that there are things out there, that we haven't even thought about yet.
Keeping it fluid is another principle that, I think, is so important. This goes back to that idea of freedom. This goes back to the idea of setting hierarchy aside. It's enabling teams to form and then disband quickly. It's about that agility that most companies are looking for, but once again, when you get really large, when you're thinking about solutions, it becomes harder and harder.
The other thing I talk about very often as a principle of entrepreneurship in large firms is valuing ROI. But, ROI meaning return on intelligence, or return on insights. Companies that can foster entrepreneurship really value learning as a currency. These companies have to find a way to reward insight finding. Right? Otherwise, we all know what happens. An entrepreneur might test something out, ... This could happen in big initiatives too. They test something out, it doesn't work, ... In the anticipated way, a lot of learnings were garnered on the path to the so-called failure. Because it didn't work out as planned, kind of get swept under the carpet, nobody wants to be associated. It's not given a platform. Then nobody really learns from it. The same thing might be repeated in another format, in another part of the company. Really then, the value of the experiment starts to diminish. But, if we celebrate what we learn, and we appreciate ROI, the return on this intelligence, the return on these insights, then we can start to really start moving towards high impact solutions that lead to sustainable growth.
I spoke about inclusivity, before. I think diversity of thought is extremely powerful. I work with the gamut of clients. Some of them are so global and so diverse, it is phenomenal, and they find a way for all these voices, and these opinions, and these experiences, and cultures to work together. I mean, study after study shows this is path to innovation. But, inclusivity also means, who are we enrolling to innovate? Is it the HR manager at Stanley Black & Decker? Is it your customer? Is it someone that maybe in some ways a competitor? There are all kinds of folks you can include in your process to start to solve problems, but without the uberous of we can do it all in our four walls. The intrapreneur is not afraid to be inclusive, not afraid to get out there and ask who else can help me? What else do we have? Who else do I know that holds some knowledge that can move us forward? Knowledge and skillsets. Then finally, I talked about this a little bit before, but fundamental to intrapreneurship is passion and purpose.
Typically these people emerge. Typically if you ask managers and leaders, they know who these people are. There are folks who are passionate and very purposeful in what they're doing and they're very dedicated. They're committed. They're not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. If you can identify those people and help them, ask them, what are they working out? What are you interested? What are you seeing? Maybe in addition to your regular work, we can find another way for you to work on this problem that you've identified in your personal life or with our existing customers or with folks who aren't our customers yet.
If you can start to foster that without suffocating them, by saying, "Look. You better do it in the way that we always do it." But give them some air cover or give them a little space. That's when things really start to move forward. More than anything else, harnessing that passion and purpose in intrapreneurs is going to lead to intrapreneurial successes.
Mike Fishbein: Simone provides a compelling and actionable framework for facilitating intrapreneurship. It's interesting to hear that so much of it is about getting out of the way, providing cover, and when necessary, offering rewards. That's so different than many of the big over the top theatrics we often hear about when it comes to corporate innovation. But removing the bureaucracy, not to mention navigating it, is easier said than done.
Simone Ahuja: One of the biggest ways that I think that intrapreneurs can help to manage the bureaucracy and the inevitable politicking that exists and the hierarchies that exist in large organizations is by flying under the radar. This is another reason to keep projects frugal, keep them small, keep them independent. For senior leaders to really think about how they can provide air cover, how they protect that intrapreneur.
I want to share an example with your from Philips. There was a fellow I talked to named Ravi Ramaswamy. He's head of Health Systems at the Philips Innovation Campus in Bengaluru, India. He was looking at low cost, portable EKG units. These are machines that measure heart rhythm. Essentially, disrupting their core business by creating very high of value but low cost EKG units for emerging markets. What they did was thought about this very comprehensively, leveraging existing assets. Again, enrolling a very passionate team, sharing videos with the team about how patients are receiving substandard care and why this matters. So really helping people become passionate and enrolling a team that could help and develop a prototype because he was a software guy and he needed a physical prototype.
This team, again, worked after hours, almost daily for six months. As Ravi said, money only takes you so far. In the end, it's about passion and purpose. But he also says, "When you design, you should design a product with commercialization in mind." It depends also, you have to enroll all the right players. Enlisting co design, for example, with marketing because they also want a differentiated offering. Think about the needs of commercial models. That should be built into the product. Developing a comprehensive plan right from the value proposition to the business model. Scalability really is the biggest pain point for everyone. So you think about a multi-generational roadmap. That's another thing. As well as some clear metrics.
These are things that, first you fly under the radar, then you develop a prototype. What we find over and over again is once the prototype is developed and it's a reasonable one, that's where the money shot is. That's where leaders start to take notice. That's when you want them to start to take notice. You don't want them to start to take notice in a very nascent stage where you're still just exploring and you're still just thinking about what is it that we need to do here? How are we going to address this need? Not only what is this product, but is there an ecosystem that needs to be built around this?
For example, I have a healthcare product. Is that enough? Or should we offer some financing? What kind of education needs to be included in that? What is the entire ecosystem? But then, you go to your leaders and you start to think about what's next? What could be next for this product? That's when it starts to get safer to spread the idea and think about how it scales. You've already thought about your roadmap, not only in this generation, but another generation. You already have ideas for clear metrics and you're already thinking about all the facets of commercialization. You've thought about it in advance so that you design the product with those in mind and your opportunity for true success, so moving from invention to innovation becomes much higher.
Mike Fishbein: Intrapreneurs are perfectly comfortable flying under the radar. That resourcefulness can be the key to the constructive innovation for a large organization. Next up is the benchmark. Let's see how Simone reflects on the next series of questions we ask all interviewees to ask themselves.
Simone Ahuja: How do I eat my own dog food? Well, I think I'll go back to when I started in healthcare and moved into media making and ethnography. I actually am a dentist. I have my degree as doctor of dental surgery. It's a long story, but through a bout of typhoid, I decided that I was going to pursue my passion and not practice in clinical dentistry anymore. I decided to do this by capturing case studies of what's happening in emerging markets on film and sharing these with organizations like PBS and ultimately with businesses.
This is an example. For me, I wasn't with a large firm, per se, but what I did was I had already gone to college for eight years. I wasn't going to go back. What I did was, I started funding my own trips and capturing these case studies with pretty limited media knowledge, but hiring people and working with people, collaborators, who knew more than I did and learning from them. I would say the best way is to get into action and any way you can.
For me, there's no better way to learn and there's no better way to succeed if you feel passionate about something. If you're convinced that something is the right path forward, jump into it. Get into action. Surround yourself with people who know a lot and who are optimistic and move forward.
How do I get out of the office? My job right now is primarily as a consultant and an author. The beauty of a lot of the research that I get to do through my books is that very often, I talk to people, I go to their offices. I'll go in market. I'm very closely linked to grassroots entrepreneurs all over the world. I'm very connected to the maker movement, so I like to get out of my office and talk to the makers and the hackers all over the world to understand what it is that they're doing. For me, this is what fuels me. This is, I think, the best way to understand what's happening and to get out of my own head and really understand, what's valuable? What trends are occurring? What themes are emerging? For me, it feels very natural and if I don't get out of the office, I start to get pretty anxious.
Right now, I am reading a book called Antifragile. This is Nassim Taleb's book. He was the one who wrote about Black Swan. This is really about complexity and disorder. His book is really about resilience. It's about flexibility. It's about the stressors and the shocks in our lives that actually make us better. It's kind of funny because this is true not only in business but in personal life too. Probably a lot of your listeners have kids. I think about this vis-à-vis helicopter parenting, so it's been a great read both from a professional and a personal perspective.
What's a recurring business nightmare that I have? That is an easy one. It is when very senior leaders, when we're running innovation and intrapreneurship experiments, say, "Let's just check with legal." That's it. That kills things every time. By way of background, it's very important of course to have legal checks and balances, but typically when you're running fast and frugal innovations and experiments, you got to have a different structure to do it. You can't do business as usual. You can't necessarily go right to corporate legal because it will literally slow you down by months. The thing that a true entrepreneur outside of a large firm could've done in two to four weeks suddenly will take you a year to two years.