3 Tenets of Intrapreneur’s Theory of Creativity

Meet Instein the intrapreneur – Einstein’s twin from a parallel universe. Arguably, Einstein had his version of intrapreneurship, publishing 4 groundbreaking papers, while working a day-job as a patent clerk. Instein, on the other hand, is a staunch believer in a more conventional form of intrapreneurship – so much so that he decided to emphasize the ‘I’ (and skip the ‘E’).

It’s 7:30 am.

Instein is already through the morning ritual of reviewing his small notebook of big ideas. He has definitive plans for the day..

It’s 8:54 am.

Instein just pulled into the parking lot of his company. It’s a 4 minute walk from the lot to his building and another minute to take the elevator and get to his office. There’s a conference call at 9 am. Those 6 minutes are all that he has got to check remainder of his inbox (part of which he glanced over the breakfast table and then some while driving), skim through the notifications from social networks and like any posts that had appeared since yesterday night.

Information consumption and proactive communication – seemingly optimal start to what promises to be a busy day.


It’s 10am.

The conference call is over. However, a colleague has just left an offline message seeking some input. It’s not urgent but it’s present.. and thus, it’s acknowledged and serviced. More information consumption and proactive communication.

It’s 11am.

Instein is hungry!

It’s 1pm.

A chat window popped up. There’s a question to be answered.

It’s 3:30pm.

There’s another email. Instein has heard inbox zero is the way to go.


It’s 4:30pm. There’s a knock on the door. It’s Dracula. He’s come to feed off Instein’s residual creativity.

It’s 5pm…


IInstein had a great concept for a product to address a new market segment. He had creative ideas to better existing product lines. He had innovative ways to make his team truly agile for once. Exasperated, Instein consults his smarter brother, Einstein, to understand how to materialize his intrapreneurial creativity.

Einstein, in a distant parallel universe, performs a thought experiment and transmits 3 tenets of Intrapreneur’s Theory of Creativity:

1. Intrapreneurial creativity needs its own space-time, parallel to the ‘consuming and communicating’ continuum

There’s enough psychology text out there to indicate that leading a life where we are inundated with information and always consuming/communicating, can inhibit creativity. There’s a reason why minimalistic web designs have become mainstream again and why most popular articles nowadays tend to have numbered lists. It’s also the reason why I’ll distil this post to no more than 3 points (How many times did you get distracted while reading this?).

Any form of creativity requires time and space – distraction-free time to think and mental space to hold those thoughts. Done right, this establishes a creative space-time continuum.

Now, entrepreneurs, independent artists or freelancers can potentially have that extra bit of freedom to completely cut off the noise and focus (greater risk, higher reward). The sort of freedom that intrapreneurs don’t always (want to) have (for various reasons). In an intrapreneurial framework, the creative space-time is challenged by the ‘consuming and communicating’ continuum. There’s no way to get rid of it. The way to work around it is to have the creative space-time work in parallel to this other continuum as per a schedule (imposed with extreme metaphorical prejudice).

When you work in the creative space-time, forget about the other continuum. Let it run in parallel. Remember that nature is all around us and it does not hurry.. yet, everything is accomplished (Lao Tzu).

2. Intrapreneurial creativity needs its own space-time of divergent and convergent thought

Creative process requires thinking from first principles, expansion of ideas, extrapolation of thought, brainstorming in teams, white-boarding, design thinking, reaching out to borrow brains and so forth. In short, it needs divergence.

Intrapreneurs work within corporate setups. Corporate setups value profits amongst other things. Profits are usually generated by servicing a need. Needs usually tend to be specific. Specificity requires convergence.

Ergo, intrapreneur’s creative space-time looks like a labyrinth of divergent and convergent thought. Focus on just the former and you’ll have lots of ideas that never converge to a product. Focus on just the latter and you’ll cease to be an intrapreneur.

3. Intrapreneurial creativity needs its own space-time with a deliberate version of connectedness

There are several abstract forms of creativity where one can (and needs to) function in a fully disconnected environment. For instance, creative writing, painting, poetry or music can be entirely thought-inspired, not needing external validation during the creation process itself. Granted that these days abstract creatives can benefit from some form of market research, purists would still demand disconnection during the creation process. However, within an intrapreneurial framework, ideas need to be constantly validated. Going back to point # 2, validation is the filter thru which divergent thoughts narrow into convergence, which in turn leads to a profitable product servicing a niche.

Using the metaphor of software patents – just like one can’t establish patentability in isolation (without being connected to review prior art), one can’t conceptualize as an intrapreneur without being connected to the extent of performing stakeholder validation. However, this is a very deliberate and necessary version of connectedness – just enough to facilitate creativity without letting through the metaphorical Dracula!


Also published on LinkedIn

Connect w/ @sushain for thoughts on data ecosystem, creativity and intrapreneurship.

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Deconstructing Innovation for IBM’s second century

My first impression of IBM being a desirable stop to set roots and perform innovative work were formed in mid 90s during those iconic Deepblue-Kasparov games. I was young and it was hard not to be gripped by the historic moment and start to form a mental model of the sort of organization (people, processes, systems, ..) that had to come together in order to achieve a feat of that magnitude. Fast forward to today, I recognize that given IBM’s size, scale and longevity (350K+ employees, 170 countries, 100+ years), opinions on the topic of innovation would be numerous and varied – so, I’d just state my perspective as someone who has observed innovation at IBM from outside as well as inside.

Firstly, I think any discourse on innovation requires a degree of context to properly situate it. Something that may be thought of as being innovative for a child, might be mis-construed or laughed-off as triviality for an adult, yet re-considered as novelty for someone older. For instance, visualize this:

A baby stands straight by supporting herself on a toy that she’s meant to play with – ‘Hey, that’s so cool.. where’s the camera!  This goes on Youtube!’.

What if it were a young adult?  ‘Uh, you’re going to break the toy.. Did you pull a muscle?’ (perhaps he did..)

How about a 90-year-old?  ‘You just stood up all by yourself today, good job!’

Leaving some room for anecdotal imprecision above, finer point is that there can be distinct innovative actions that are being performed by entities in distinct lifecycle phases, using the resources at hand and with a point-in-time/best effort interpretation of their needs.

In our industry, innovation at an early stage startup might be a combination of survival, bootstrapping and profitability. As it starts to mature, perhaps raising multiple rounds of funding over time, context shifts and expectations change. What was once considered innovative, ends up being routine and mundane. Then, at some point, the startup IPOs or is acquired and becomes a large corporation. Then, one day the technology landscape shifts – perhaps moving away from large-form PCs to mobile, or computing silos to a fully networked world. Context shifts, forcing a shift in interpretation of what it means to be innovative.

For an enterprise that’s over 100 years old (average Fortune 500 company hasn’t lasted over 15-20 years), IBM has not only needed to innovate on what it’s building/selling, but also re-invent itself organizationally several times over (circa 1980, 1993). Add to that, billions of dollars spent on research, an unparalleled patent record, Nobel laureates in the ranks and technology that underlies some of the world’s most critical systems and infrastructure, IBM is undeniably one of the most innovative organizations.

But, what does it really mean for an organization that has a 100+ year history, 350K+ current employees across 170 countries, to be innovative ?

Well, what does it mean for a nation state or a very large institution to have a certain characteristic trait?

Arguably, it means that a majority of cities/towns/villages or disciplines/labs/departments have the right systems and infrastructure put in place that nudge the people to cumulatively reflect that trait – somehow, the weighted sum of that one trait at least equals any other.

Perhaps the real (and only) way that an innovative strain can run through such an institution is through the collective framework of the systems that have been put in place to help its members innovate — and that brings us to the actionable part of this write up:

IBM has long focused on protecting its core technology and freedom of use by encouraging employees to actively invent, which in turn also ensures having the freedom to shield the open source ecosystem. It has systems in place to achieve this thru a controlled idea disclosure and review process. It also has systems that subsequently let those employees turn into experts at the art of identifying and/or developing novelty, with an expectation to mentor colleagues.

If people use the systems to amplify the characteristic trait for which those systems were put in place to begin with, then that trait as well as those systems should invariably survive the test of time.

It’s true of all such systems – like democracy, they survive iff people exercise them.

So, the call-to-action for early-tenure IBMers is to make use of systems like – IBM Master Inventor Program – that are available to every employee, to help continue the innovative legacy into the second century. IBM has been a patent leader for 23 years straight with a small fraction of its employees contributing. If for some reason you happen to not believe in software patents, I’d suggest reading this essay on why we invent. I’ve also shared a few tips focused on this specific program.

More importantly though, one can leverage these systems to understand how to think innovatively during day-to-day work – effectively a life-skill that is worth learning in itself even if the end result does not take shape in the form of a patent. Additionally, there are several other systems to drive innovation – applying design thinking, acting as an intrapreneur, participating in Academy of technology initiatives, etc. Equally, these systems go beyond engineering/research, and can span offering management, design/UX, lab services, consulting, data science, sales or operations – the idea is to discover and utilize the systems that exist within one’s discipline to innovate.

Ending this call-to-action on innovation by circling back to my prelude and sharing a short video on the classic Deep Blue versus Kasparov match-up.

If people use the systems to amplify the characteristic trait for which those systems were put in place to begin with, then that trait as well as those systems should invariably survive the test of time.

Take care & Onward.

3 Insights On Being Intrapreneurial From Charlie The Waiter

It’s interesting how seemingly casual conversations can provoke thoughts across a broad spectrum and end up being instructive. Sometime back, I had one such conversation with a restaurant server (Charlie) while having late dinner.

Are enjoying your dinner sir?’ Yes, everything is good, thanks. ‘That’s great, you seem like you had a long day.  ‘Yeah, I was really looking forward to a good meal .’

So what do you do?’ I devise and build software products.  ‘What type of software?’  I specialize in data management and data driven software.  ‘What kind of data?’  Various kinds. (trying to switch context..)

So, do you work here full-time?   ‘Nope, just a side gig. I’m an aspiring entrepreneur.. trying to start my own food outlet’.  Ah nice, well I can understand that.  ‘Hah.  So, you didn’t say what kind of data you work with?’  Hm, I’m just thinking how to explain in simple… ‘Come on man, get creative. What is your business?”.

Eventually, I did end up explaining it to Charlie in a manner that he could relate with and in process, synthesized the following pointers on creatively retaining your intrapreneurial edge (specifically for engineers and technologists) –

1. You are in business

Charlie underscored that as long as you make a living doing what you do, there’s always a business side to the equation, a customer/client/buyer/user who is paying money to you or your organization (for intrapreneurs). Granted this may be obvious to many, but at times, a technology-focused employee can subconsciously create an alternate reality where technology turns into money (and food/water/shelter). Why? Because they get paid to work with and use technology to develop products. Product management acts as the messenger of the market and sales takes care of getting the product to the market. However, an intrapreneur (more or less like an entrepreneur) is donning all those hats at one point or the other to lead an idea to fruition. So, for the intrapreneurial minded employees, it is of paramount importance to always connect technology with business cases, even if it’s not part of the day job. Only then can they expect to have the freedom and resources that are essential to conceptualize ideas, invent solutions and initiate projects to truly and effectively act as an intrapreneur – all within the framework of a gainful employment.

2. You are in business of finding simple and creative explanations

Few minutes into our conversation, Charlie excused himself to get my bill. I’d have done the usual but for his question around the kind of data I work on, I paused and used the bill as a real-world example to help convey the idea. Charlie could relate to it way better because it had to do with his day job.

He went on to describe how they had bought a new software recently because the one they had before would confuse between various order types (dine-in, take-out and delivery) and didn’t allow them to merge customers based on phone numbers. Interestingly, he had just described two problems (reference data and master data management) that I was working on at the time.

As an intrapreneur, you ought to not only have an eye for technical detail and the end-user, but also for coming up with simple explanations that non-technical folks can easily relate to. This is a must-have in order to create buy-in from a varied set of stakeholders and eventually, receive the executive oversight for your idea to get funded and staffed.

3. You are in business of socializing your ideas all the time

.. or most of the time, never mind the late dinner. This shouldn’t be hard to fathom because intrapreneurship is entrepreneurship after all, just within the sphere of a large organization, which makes it all the more important to socialize your ideas and associated use cases to get backers and justify funding. It is not a coincidence that social intrapreneurs have been part of an elite group that’s considered to be one of the most valuable across organizations [Forbes]. So, if a Charlie out there wants to get a thousand-feet view of the problem that you are solving, it’s probably worthwhile to do your bit as an intrapreneur. Even if Charlie mentions that it was only yesterday that he saw a similar idea, you’d still have him as a reference that could help validate another idea down the road or act as a potential backer.

Also published on LinkedIn

Connect w/ @sushain for thoughts on data-driven ecosystem, creativity and intrapreneurship

An anecdote on Technology Patents and Defensive Publications

Sometime back, one of my ideas on a classification variant using neural-networks got published on IP.com as what’s known as a defensive publication. I always thought it to be a really strong candidate for a patent application, and was a bit disappointed when my employer’s patent review board decided that it should instead be published defensively. A little more research on the topic, however, changed my stance, and upon introspection, I was quite satisfied with the state of affairs. Thought I’d record my observations here for anyone to read and clarify the whole patent-publication gamut.

Let us start with a scenario where a top-notch scientist working in a world-class firm makes a ground-breaking discovery, leading to an equally precious idea and associated methodology to implement the idea.

He knows that useful ideas within an enterprise should be protected and thus, he files a patent disclosure with his local invention review board. These boards comprise of seasoned inventors, several of them master inventors, and almost all of them having a significant patent-portfolio. Consequently, they generally also possess a healthy disdain for triviality. And so they begin to scrutinize the disclosure….

They go through the existing prior-art (what’s known on the subject) and find a few seemingly similar ideas. To clarify, they send out a questionnaire to the scientist soliciting a response. Our dear scientist, being quite busy evangelizing new ideas, misses the solicitation deadline and gets a note with the subject – ‘Disclosure Rated Close’ in his inbox after a few days.

Panic struck, he immediately writes to the review board expressing his distress and sense of injustice. Soon after though, he realizes his tardiness and writes a follow-up apologetic note asking for a re-consideration of the disclosure. He spends that night sorting thru the core idea and drafting the answers to the questionnaire – his mind already somewhat overtaken by new ideas. He sends his detailed explanation requesting the board to revoke the ‘close decision’ on the disclosure. After much deliberation, he finally succeeds and the disclosure status switches back to ‘under evaluation’. Rejuvenated with his little win, our scientist gets that transient feeling that he’s found his sixth sense and is next in line after Euler, Newton and Einstein.

The communication process goes on for sometime and then, the review board starts to exhibit that once-in-a-blue-moon impression of ‘getting the idea’. But now, they face another dilemma. They are pretty convinced that the idea is unique and the implementation novel, unlike to anything done before, but the patent, if filed, wouldn’t have significant business value.

Our scientist is inconsolable.. “Business value?!! But this is a beautiful innovation.. novelty, uniqueness, rigor.. everything in perfect proportions. Just patent it, it would create a new business for you.”

It would not, however, benefit the existing businesses. “If filed and litigated, the revenue that the patent would generate on an average after ‘n’ years and after going through ‘t’ lawsuits doesn’t weigh well against the combined cost of the patent application, those ‘t’ lawsuits and/or the cost of establishing a new business using the invention.”

In the hindsight, these explanations seem pretty rational. But the scientist still reasons, “Okay, so you don’t want to file a patent application now, no problem.. lets wait until a more opportune time”.

Board reasons – “Well, your idea is unique right now. We can wait, but then you’ll risk someone else figuring it out, in which case, your efforts will be rendered useless.”

The scientist takes a step back and thinks about the 6 billion people, who in that moment, all seem capable of taking away his prized possession. “So, what is the way out then?”, asks our Scientist.

“Well.. lets publish this defensively, which would mean publishing this in an open database accessible to everyone. That way, we preserve our rights to use it and no one else can patent it in future. So, from that point onward, it’ll become a part of non-patentable public knowledge. You will of course retain the authorship and your organization will become the disclosing entity. The only catch is that since it’ll be public, we won’t be able to generate any revenue through lawsuits. However, you can publish your results at a conference, which would provide you and your work the right level of exposure.”

To the scientist, this was a revelation – unification of business, technological and academic brilliance. An equilibrium. He thus decided to rest his case.

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