‘Skunk Works’ Projects Stoke ‘Intrapreneurial’ Fire

Discussion
Aug 27, 2012

Perhaps during no other era in modern history has entrepreneurship been more meaningful to the business world. Companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google went from garages and dorm rooms to tech giants with dizzying speed. There are few companies in the retail industry that wouldn’t spend lots of cash on that kind of creative spirit and risk-taking moxie if it came in a bottle (assuming they had lots of cash to spend). But perhaps getting successful ideas stirred up doesn’t have to be all that costly.

Dan Schawbel, a managing partner of consulting firm Millennial Branding, offers a range of techniques for nurturing entrepreneurship in a recent article on TechCrunch. There seem to be enough sizes and shapes of programs to satisfy just about any company.

Corporate entrepreneurship programs predate the PC/dot.com revolution by decades, according to Mr. Shawbel. He points back to Lockheed Martin’s "Skunk Works" — an internal seat-of-the-pants outfit said to be responsible for conceiving a number of innovative aircraft designs beginning in the ’40s.

To build a lasting culture of growth and innovation, however, companies are looking for systematic ways to recruit the smartest, freshest young talent and create a supportive, entrepreneurial atmosphere. It’s estimated that 30 percent of large companies are providing seed funds to finance "intrapreneurship," according to Mr. Shawbel. One of the most famous examples comes from 3M whose "Bootlegging Policy" resulted in Post-it Notes. Today, similarly, Google encourages employees to spend 20 percent of their work time on developing customer-centric new products.

Alternative approaches to internal development include buying start-ups and fishing for ideas outside of the company. An example of the latter include Amazon Web Services’ "Start-Up Challenge" that offers cash grants of $50,000 for the best ideas that apply their technology to business.

And yet, entrepreneurship doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. The Bar Code Media Group, for instance, has thrown down a challenge to designers to enliven bar code scanner hardware. It refers to the utilitarian, customer-facing gear as coming in "50 shades of gray … white, off-white, putty and black" and is looking for out-of-the-box thinking. The winner and finalists will see their designs published in The Bar Code News. The winner gets $300 from the Group.

"My prediction is that in the future, all companies will resemble startups and have a startup culture, regardless of size," writes Mr. Shawbel. Most would see that as a Utopian vision, but undoubtedly entrepreneurship should be within the reach of all companies. You just have to think creatively to get it started.

What types of challenges would you like to see retail chains tackle with greater entrepreneurial spirit? What down side do you see (if any) in stimulating more internal entrepreneurial thinking?

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8 Comments on "‘Skunk Works’ Projects Stoke ‘Intrapreneurial’ Fire"


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Fabien Tiburce
Guest
Fabien Tiburce
9 years 8 months ago

3 words: in-store execution.

There is ample evidence (thanks to RetailWire panelist James Tenser for this) that improper/incomplete merchandising execution costs retailers 1%+ of sales annually. You then have to factor-in “shrink” (often tied to in-store execution), which costs on average 1.5% of sales. Lastly, you need to account for other costs and missed opportunities such as substandard customer service and health & safety, which are costly and can affect a brand’s reputation and goodwill.

Retailers have a HUGE opportunity to do more with less by focusing on in-store execution for programs they already pay for. Get the right teams and the right auditing tools in place.

Tony Orlando
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

The best stores allow the great creative minds to think outside of the box without fear of backlash. Creativity doesn’t come in a box or a plan-o-gram, as it is inspiration, and some concrete hard work, which produces some amazing results. No one has 100% success rate in new ideas, but the few winners can make huge profits for any size company, and let us never forget that it takes implementation from everyone in the company all the way down to the cashier to make it succeed.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

We must allow mid-level staff team members to be creative in their thinking rather than reactive to issues requiring them to follow company protocol. It would be good to create more “skunk works” among all the silos to help us grow and become world leaders. Let’s get out of this follow-the-leaders thinking and take back the vest with the target on the back that others aim for.

Bill Hanifin
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I share Mr. Shawbel’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship as well as desire to see a start-up culture permeate corporate America. However, my version of his quote would be “…in the future, companies which most resemble startups and have a startup culture, regardless of size, will come out ahead of those that do not.”

This is speculative, but given the tendency of Millennials to share and over-share, I believe that there does not have to be huge monetary incentive to spark new ideas. Competing for recognition through idea generation should account for getting the ball rolling and some longer term participation in the upside of the ideas spawned would reward the overall effort.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

As the planet moves forward with investments in the world economy, companies will have to be much more conscious of the connotative, denotative, and definitive content of corporate vision and messages to the public. This will require creating an investigative stimulus in the context of a marketing communication. Bringing people of all nations and cultures into your e-store and allowing discovery to happen in a positive direction will be tricky for a while. But as time and trials take place, the companies with the daring to gently dive into this new and exciting world market will be the best to work with and for.

Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
9 years 8 months ago

Many retailers have a lot to gain from listening to associates at the sharp end of the business in the store and on the supply/distribution side. Demonstrating a willingness to listen and follow-through on ideas can be powerful benefits in themselves.

Lee Peterson
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

I would like to see more innovation on the service side of retail — that’s clearly the biggest opportunity for improvement through change. Perhaps if some of the technology retailers have been deploying to the physical space was designed to help sales associates better help customers, we would go a long way to empowering more entrepreneurial spirit.

Example: my Apple store has an average of at least 30 employees on the sales floor at all times — someone to help you, no matter what, no matter how. THAT, to me, is innovation.

Martin Mehalchin
Guest
Martin Mehalchin
9 years 8 months ago

It seems to me that the endgame for all of this is innovation and growth. To that end, retailers have a great asset that companies in many other industries don’t have access to, namely, detailed data on customer behavior. Whether it clickstream analysis on an eCommerce site or observing customer pathing through a physical store; retailers should be using their customer data to first derive the kind of insight that fuels innovation and second to rapidly test, refine and improve the innovations or “entrepreneurial” pilots that result.

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