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SPIE Professional July 2014

Optics and photonics intrapreneurship

Not ready for entrepreneurship? Become an intrapreneur instead.

By Andrea Belz

In 1943, the US Army desperately needed a new jet fighter to counter the growing power of German jets. The Army went to the Lockheed Aircraft Corp. to develop a secret jet that would transform the world of American aviation.

Led by a young engineer named Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the Lockheed team designed and built what would become the XP-80 jet in a mere 143 days. They worked in a rented circus tent beneath the radar, and they were not constrained by the rules and regulations of the larger corporation.

They were relentless entrepreneurs working around the clock, and they called themselves Skunk Works, named after a mysterious and foul-smelling place in the Li’l Abner comic strip.

Fast forward 71 years and Skunk Works is still going strong at Lockheed Martin — it is an essential division of the company that remains committed to innovation and breaking the rules whenever it’s necessary to achieve a mission.

The Skunk Works story is a classic example of what today is being called “intrapreneurship,” the idea that large corporations must encourage risk-taking entrepreneurs within their existing structures. Highly successful corporations, such as Google, Gore, and Boeing, have thriving intrapreneur programs. They all realize they must continue to push the technical and organizational boundaries of their enterprises if they are to remain competitive.

As I look at the landscape of American business, I see intrapreneurship as the proving ground for a new generation of entrepreneurs. We live in a world where innovation has become a mantra and wildly successful entrepreneurs are treated like heroes. There are countless stories of maverick entrepreneurs and their successes as well as their failures, but clearly not everyone can take the path of Tesla’s Elon Musk or Apple’s Steve Jobs.

Still, for young engineers who work in large companies today, there are limitless opportunities to move beyond the traditional corporate boundaries of developing new products. The key is that engineers must understand how to become part of intrapreneurial ventures and develop the right skill sets to do so.

5 skills for aspiring intrapreneurs

Five skills that aspiring intrapreneurs must master in order to join and ultimately lead innovation programs at their organizations are:

  • Opportunity creation
  • Organizational development
  • Communication
  • Market research
  • Accounting
Intrapreneurs create business opportunities

All intrapreneurs have one important thing in common: they are always looking at potential new business opportunities and trends in the market. Google intrapreneurs looked well beyond search engines almost a decade ago and saw the connection between people’s desire to communicate and how they could leverage Google’s search strengths; the result was Gmail.

Starbucks has become part of the cultural fabric because intrapreneurs realized that people wanted more than coffee. They wanted a place where they could meet or work online independently. Starbucks responded with free Wi-Fi and an atmosphere conducive to attracting people from small businesses.

Successful intrapreneurs create new opportunities for their organizations by constantly scanning the markets and identifying trends tied to the core strengths of their companies.

Intrapreneurs must develop effective teams

The mantra in the world of real estate is “location, location, location.” I would argue that the mantra for intrapreneurship is “people, people, people.” Effective intrapreneurs must develop team-building skills to deliver a project successfully.

In the world of sports, successful coaches have the ability to find the right mix of players to achieve their goals. Phil Jackson has more basketball championship rings than fingers because he found ways to create teams of players with varying and complementary skill sets. Intrapreneurs need to assess their team members, learn about their skills and interests, and determine if their goals are aligned with those of the new project.

Organizational development is perhaps the most challenging task of intrapreneurship. It requires assessing how people will work together, and the actual team chemistry can’t really be determined until the players are on the court, so to speak. Make no mistake, there will be successes and failures along the way.

Importance of persuading the audience

Inextricably tied to team building is developing communication skills.

What many people don’t realize is that successful communication is linked to understanding and reaching the needs of your audience. The best communicators know how to assess any given audience and use the right methods of persuasion to make their case.

Intrapreneurs must be able to communicate clearly with members of their team and make the case to management that their vision is both valuable and viable.

Researching the optics markets

Market research allows intrapreneurs to find data and opportunities linked to the needs of the customer. For engineers who are trained to identify and solve problems, this is often a very different perspective.

How do you read market-research reports? How do you segment a market in different ways?

Some research requires collecting first-hand data, which calls for asking prospective customers directly for problems to solve.

This can be a difficult exercise for an engineer who is not used to solving problems in interviews instead of with formulas, but it is a critical element – and a teachable skill – for those interested in learning how to validate new opportunities. Market research skills are crucial to getting a product out to the world.

Keeping score: The need for business accounting

Accounting may seem mundane to many, but it is essential to the equation of intrapreneurship.

One of my mentors once gave me a valuable lesson. He defined accounting in a simple but valuable way: “How can you win if you can’t keep score?”

Accounting is the way that companies keep score, and aspiring intrapreneurs must be able to develop budgets and use accounting principles to justify their projects and ideas.

Innovation is imperative for optics intrapreneurs

The skills that I have outlined are learned and not born, and there are many ways to develop them: by working with mentors, attending weekend courses, and the age-old method of trial and error.

The key to intrapreneurship is the willingness to think outside of a traditional job description to the larger needs of the market. Intrapreneurs want to create something new, and they leverage the diverse resources around them to benefit their organizations.

For every intrapreneurial venture there will be skeptics who say, “But we can’t afford to go in that direction. It’s too risky and we don’t know if it will succeed.”

The answer from intrapreneurs is always the same: “You can’t afford not to innovate.”

Andrea Belz of University of Southern California –Andrea Belz is a professor at the University of Southern California Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and academic director of the Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at the USC Marshall School of Business. She has a PhD in nuclear and particle physics, an MBA in finance, and a BS in physics. She is president of Belz Consulting and an instructor and volunteer at SPIE events.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201407.04

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