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.