Innovation and Intrapreneurship

Principles of innovation & intrapreneurship and how to navigate innovating in a larger organisation

What is innovation? We’ve already looked at the power of pooling resources in new ways in our combinatorial innovation module. Combinatorial innovation is the art and science of creating something new from a diverse range of available resources.

This module deals with innovation, the concept of ‘intrapreneurship’, and what it means to innovate when you’re working as a team, department or startup within the structure of a larger organisation, as well as sharing a story of innovation and intrapreneurship from one of our partners.

Key Takeaways

  • Innovation should improve the status quo and deliver value.
  • Practical innovation can deliver impact and change lives.
  • Intrapreneurs navigating innovation in larger organisations need to: get buy-in and commitment early, identify champions, align with parent organisation, and know boundaries in order to succeed.


We think of innovation as: a new process, methodology, product or service that improves the status quo and delivers value. And we emphasise the importance of improvement and value creation. Without this, it’s not an innovation – it’s just a novelty.

Practical Innovation to Deliver Real Impact

Innovation can be a fluffy concept. How do we apply it, think creatively to produce something different that creates impact for people that are the most vulnerable, trying to break out of the cycle of poverty? In practice, innovation can mean lives changed, through practical innovation at the base of the pyramid (BoP) or where the community members need it the most, converting into real impact.

Some of the best practice innovation approaches that we’ve discovered and used within Asia P3 Hub include:

Innovation Genome Project

An Autodesk initiative which examined the world’s most important 1,000 historical innovations to discern what worked best and create tools that Autodesk employees and customers can use to make their work more innovative. The initiative established 7 essential innovation questions to organise brainstorming efforts. We cover this more in the Products & Services module.

Design Thinking and Human-Centred Design

A design and management framework that engages the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving and solutioning process. This approach is also covered more in the Products & Services module.

Agile Methodology

Uses incremental, iterative work cycles known as sprints. These approaches, especially when applied through a ‘combinatorial’ lens, can generate innovative, inclusive, well-validated solutions.


What does it mean to be entrepreneurial? Typically we think of an entrepreneur as someone who starts something new, or someone who works for themselves. But we think that being entrepreneurial actually has a lot to do with your mindset and approach, and it’s not necessarily about starting your own company.


  • is about value creation
  • is about management
  • can be found anywhere

Entrepreneurship is about value creation

We don’t think starting your own company truly makes you an entrepreneur. Making yourself a fortune doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. You are only an entrepreneur when you create value; when what you introduce makes a positive difference.

There are plenty of people who started companies that exploit others or create a negative impact for their own benefits. Conversely, there are others who may never start companies but are always striving to create value in new ways (more about ‘intrapreneurs’ later). We consider these people to be more entrepreneurial than the ones who started companies that negates value.

Entrepreneurship is about management

Anyone can come up with an interesting idea. But an entrepreneurial individual will have a way of bringing that idea to life, whether it’s manoeuvring the complex politics of an organisation or surviving in an adverse environment. He or she knows that discipline, grit and hard work is required to put together and execute a long-term plan that will bring him or her closer to the end goal. An entrepreneurial person does not give himself / herself any excuses when things don’t happen. They will make the best out of the things they can control and adapt to the things that they can’t.

Entrepreneurship can be found anywhere

Entrepreneurship is in abundance. It is a mindset, not the status, that makes someone an entrepreneur. Many are already entrepreneurial in their thoughts and actions way before they become one. The mother in the village who took up a microfinance loan to buy a sewing machine to increase her household income is an aspiring entrepreneur. The student who believes his research project has potential and talks to as many mentors he can find is an aspiring entrepreneur. The secretary who took night and weekend business courses in the hopes of becoming more business-savvy is an aspiring entrepreneur.

Anyone can be an entrepreneur.

What’s an Intrapreneur?

Intrapreneur = ‘Inside Entrepreneur’

Intrapreneurs are essentially entrepreneurs operating within existing organisations. They apply the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovate within the companies they work for, rather than starting their own company or venture.

An intrapreneur can be an individual that is innovating or trying to bring about change within an organisation, or an innovative team or new department run by intrapreneurs that operates like a startup within a larger organisation.

This article from Entrepreneur Asia Pacific articulates very well what an ‘intrapreneur’ looks like, and how to identify and nurture them within your organisation.

It defines intrapreneurs as having the following key traits:

  • A passionate self-starter
  • Not strictly money-motivated
  • Thirsty for knowledge
  • Able to nurture innovative ideas
  • Adaptable

Intrapreneurs are valuable to organisations because they can innovate and disrupt the status quo – even in a successful organisation for whom the modus operandi is working well – they can foresee future risks, generate innovative ideas, propose ways to do things better, and they’re prepared to work to bring their ideas to life.

Companies and organisations that know how to support and nurture intrapreneurs can benefit from their entrepreneurial spirit, ideas and innovations. But not all organisations are set up to foster and empower intrapreneurs.

How To Navigate Innovating Within A Large Organisation

For Asia P3 Hub, we set up in an ‘intrapreneurial context’, i.e. our organisation was formed as an innovative startup within a large organisation – we were incubated by World Vision International.

This was a new way of thinking and a new type of operating model for a large international non-governmental organization (NGO): a dedicated venture to bring the different sectors together to co-create market-driven solutions to development and humanitarian problems. We were fortunate to have a visionary senior leadership team (both past and present) willing to invest in the pilot of a new operating model for the organisation.

Opportunities and Challenges of Intrapreneurs/Entrepreneurs

In his article ‘How big companies squander good ideas’, Tim Harford suggests that ‘intrapreneurs’ or innovative individuals and ideas are often ignored, quashed or dismissed within large organisations due to organisational architecture and politics getting in the way. Big companies sometimes lack the necessary organisational architecture to support them, or they’re afraid of what it will mean to radically change the way they do things, afraid of ‘organisationally disruptive innovation’.

Let’s take a look at some of the opportunities and challenges typically faced by intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs to understand how these contexts differ. (Table adapted from this website)

Tips For Navigating Innovating Within A Large Organisation

Get buy-in and validated commitment early

Having a good idea is just a start. The success of any innovation within an organisation is largely dependent on its acceptance rate within the organisation. Without the right buy-in and support from the right executive sponsors, there would be a limit to how far an innovation can go. This is especially important when there is leadership transition and turnover. Your executive sponsor can help assure you maintain your “place” when the rationale for your existence may not be as obvious to a new leader with little or no background and familiarity to your purpose, mission and value proposition.

Power mapping: identify your champions

Undertaking a power mapping exercise (see exercises below) allows you to identify who the internal stakeholders are that you need to engage with, whose buy-in you need, and who your champions are. For example, some of the biggest supporters for Asia P3 Hub were not even in our region. It has been important for us to identify those who believe in our model and continue to nurture a relationship with them.

Ensure your strategy and language are aligned

We found it was extremely important to align our strategy, and even the language we used to that of our parent organisation. See more on this in the Strategy and Common Language modules. You need to have a clear understanding how you are creating value for your parent organisation (through an aligned strategy), and to be able to clearly and consistently communicate this value (using common language). This was not immediately intuitive to us though in hindsight it was so obvious! We were enthusiastic and focused on how we could leverage and tap the strengths of the organisation in new, innovative ways to generate value and impact. Our enthusiasm was initially packaged in terminology and ways of working that were not standard with many of our internal stakeholders. We constantly adapted and adjusted how we communicated internally to mitigate the gap of understanding. It’s great if your strategy is aligned with the strategy of your parent organisation, but they need to be able to see this too.

Tap into the resources of your parent organisation

It’s important to understand, and tap into the existing resources of your parent organisation. For our Hub, being hosted by World Vision meant we were able to tap into the various support units of our host organisation – in particular HR, Finance, Communications and Strategy. As what we do is very different from the usual modus operandi of the parent organisation, it was essential that we built a business partner relationship with these teams, sought to align our needs with their capabilities, and proactively communicated what we were doing.

Get to know other innovators/intrapreneurs

Identify other teams that are working on various innovative projects (if relevant). We found that having an open dialogue with other teams in the organisation working on innovative projects was valuable and helped us validate our assumptions and thought processes, as well as providing encouragement - it’s good to know there are others trying to push the envelope on innovation.

Pick your battles and know your hard boundaries

Intrapreneurs do not have the luxury of going it alone and operating in an autonomous fashion. You must be sensitive to the pace and organisational ability of your ‘parent’ organisation to absorb new ways of working. Innovation is often seen as ‘extra work’ so empathy, business savvy and discernment on what initiatives and internal partners to choose is important. Develop a coalition of the willing and passionate. The old adage “win the battle but lose the war” can apply: it may not be worth winning some battles if it causes relational or political issues internally, and longer term opportunities are compromised, so pick your battles. Regularly scan your internal landscape and take time to discern the boundaries within which you can innovate and take risks. Operating outside the core business allows you to innovate, but it’s also important to have insiders at critical junctures. Remember that what you believe are moderate risks may be seen as significant risks for your internal stakeholders.

Stories of Innovation: Nepal Innovation Lab (NLab)

A great example of practical innovation at the Base of the Pyramid is World Vision International’s Nepal Innovation Lab (NLAB). While most of the content on this site revolves around our experience, we wanted to bring in the experience of one of our partners here to illustrate how an innovative team or organisation can succeed in innovating within a well-established and successful large organisation. Their innovations not only improve lives, but also bring profound benefits to their parent organisation.

World Vision created the NLab as part of as part of the organisation’s Nepal earthquake response after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April 2015 that killed nearly 9,000 people in Nepal, injured more than 22,000, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. The Lab is a fully equipped innovation center located in the heart of Kathmandu Valley. It provides a collaborative working environment to test, prototype and scale breakthrough solutions for humanitarian and development challenges. Innovations that are born in the Lab are co- designed with the end users or the people affected by crisis.

Here are 3 examples of life-changing innovations they’ve developed.

Blockchain-Based App Putting Money in the Hands of Rural Communities

Sikka is a digital asset transfer platform designed for financially marginalised rural communities in Nepal, funded and incubated by NLab. The blockchain-based application helps Nepalis in remote and hard-to-reach areas to receive cash through their mobile phones. For NGOs, including World Vision, Sikka achieves last mile distribution of cash and goods to these communities in a way that’s fast, efficient and most importantly transparent and accountable. And it significantly reduces the cost of dispersing payments (as much as 65 percent based on their pilot) and reduces risk.

Digital Platform Empowering Reading And Learning In Nepal’s Schools

KITAB Bazar is a digital platform developed in-house by NLab, that allows rural and remote schools to connect with publishers and ensure that supply chain challenges are minimised and children get books in schools.

For school teachers, the platform means they can easily access and order books for their students. For World Vision International Nepal, the platform means they can deliver their literacy program to remote and hard-to-reach schools, and gather accurate quantitative data from the platform itself. And children benefit from better access to supplementary reading materials, giving them a strong foundation for reading and learning.

Digital Manufacturing / 3D printing in the field

Field Ready in partnership with the Nepal Innovation Lab has been exploring how digital manufacturing technology and local manufacturing capacity can shorten supply chains in the delivery of humanitarian aid and put innovation and production into the hands of communities. They collaborate with local partners on the design and repair of medical supplies, custom parts for radio systems, scale models for education in earthquake-resilient construction techniques, and fittings for water distribution systems in crisis-affected communities.

For World Vision, there is huge potential in being able to print parts and undertake repairs in the field when responding to a crisis. And for communities, the initiative would allow cost-effective and fast access to sometimes life-saving equipment and repairs.


Power Mapping Exercise

Take a look at your parent organisation (if you are an intrapreneur), or your stakeholders and community (if you are setting up in an entrepreneurial context, or as a network or alliance). And ask the following questions:

  • Who are your influencers, champions, decision-makers?
  • Why do they matter to your organisation?
  • How will you target priority relationships?
  • Also think about timing considerations: different stakeholders and champions will play crucial roles and be a priority at different stages for your hub; who do you need to engage with at the current stage of your journey?


Here are some key resources on Innovation & Intrapreneurship. Our downloadable Hub-in-a-Box guide also includes useful and relevant tools. And we’ve compiled additional tools and resources, that Asia P3 Hub has found the most useful in its journey so far on the resources section of the Asia P3 Hub website.