Taking on Innovation Antibodies

We’re all familiar with the legend of the entrepreneur. It’s a story of the creative genius who decides to fly solo and build an operation out of his (in the legend, it’s often his) garage. The completely innovative idea disrupts the market, takes hold, and changes the world as we know it.

There is one major problem with the legend … it isn’t real. Yet many people still believe in the myth of the lone wolf entrepreneur. These believers miss the mark, since few entrepreneurs have ever operated solo.

In fact, they are known to be adept at building close teams that work well together. Today, 20 percent of businesses are started by women, and that number has been growing—not high enough yet, but worthy of representation in the entrepreneurial myth.

Contrary to the myth as well, many successful entrepreneurs are still operating from within their organizations—we call such internal innovators “intrapreneurs”. Research summarized in Driving Innovation From Within found the intrapreneurial success rate to range from 0.3% to as high as 86%, with an average of 17%, putting it on par with entrepreneurial success rates.

But detractors often site “innovation antibodies” as an argument for the misguided belief that such internal innovation is impossible. They say there’s no use in attempting to innovate within an established organization. It can’t be done. Corporate antibodies will rise up to attack any threat to the status quo or any idea that might cannibalize an existing market. Aspiring innovators should quit their jobs or roll back to their Zoom screens.

The flawed logic of giving up

Why do people seem to want to give up on the internal innovator? Let’s consider other endeavors whose low success rates don’t suggest we give up but rather that we push forward.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20 percent of new businesses fail within the first year. By the end of the second year, the number rises to 30 percent. After five years, only 50 percent will remain. And at the end of a decade, 70 percent will have failed. Other estimates put entrepreneurial failure rates even lower.

Based on those statistics, it seems success is so low that something is wrong, the system somehow doesn’t work, and we should give up on entrepreneurship now.

If we followed that same logic, we would not have any Olympic athletes. The chance of becoming one is 1 in 500,000 or .0002%. Perhaps you’d be better off on the national level, but the chance of any basketball player making it to the NBA is 1 in 3,333 (.03%). Let’s look at another industry, pharmaceuticals, where only 9.6% of drugs entering phase I clinical trials will ever reach the market. We certainly wouldn’t have a show like Stranger Things. The Duffer brothers’ idea was rejected nearly 20 times before being bought by Netflix.

According to the logic above, none of these feats make any sense to attempt. But instead of considering aspiring athletes, life-saving drugs, and hit shows foolish and recommending they quit, we invest time and money in them and celebrate their victories.

The hidden story of intrapreneurial success

So why is the story of the intrapreneur outshined by stories of entrepreneurs, elite athletes and artists? A big part is that we hold a cultural value that makes us want to cheer on the rogue hero, but not so much the one on the inside.

But have heart, brave intrapreneur. Remember that society rarely cheers on the innovator. As Machiavelli eloquently put it in The Prince:

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the innovator has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

Let’s flip the logic. Let’s see the challenge of intrapreneurship as worthy an effort as getting to the Olympics, producing a breakthrough TV show, or growing a business from scratch.

Photo by Kasuma

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