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Act Like a Startup – Telus Nurtures the Intrapreneurial Spirit

To keep its large telecommunications firm fresh and creative, Telus Corp. encourages its employees to treat the company like it’s their own, believing that intraprenuership can offer up great results.

In 2013, Shawn Mandel, vice-president of the company’s digital team, led the redesign of the company’s website,

“We believe the only way a large organization can tackle projects of this magnitude is to act like a small startup,” Mr. Mandel says.

While the Vancouver-based company employs 24,000 people in Canada, in contrast the redesign project involved just 20 people. Over an 80-day period, the group analyzed and redesigned the website from the ground up with the aim of delivering a best-in-class online customer experience in both consumer and business segments.

The site was built on an open beta platform which meant the public could access it, test the environment and provide feedback on what they liked or what they thought needed to change. The sharing and transparency brought the team closer to Telus customers and made it a success, Mr. Mandel says, allowing the team to try and test activities in a digital sandbox.

“This makes a lot of sense, you need be set up where you can try things out, think about ideas and test them with your customers,” says William Mitchell, the Anthony S. Fell chair in new technologies and commercialization at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Mitchell explains that while entrepreneurship is the experiment of creating value, intrapreneurship is doing the same thing – but in the context of an existing firm. Too often firms fall into the trap of believing that breakthroughs happen only in new firms, he says. Innovation can take place within established firms, but Dr. Mitchell says it needs to be visible.

At Telus, the culture of intrapreneurship is fostered by creating a physical environment that is conducive to it.

“I believe in leading by example” Mr. Mandel says. “I got rid of my office and now sit with my team in an open space.” The environment is full of visuals such as customer journey maps and process maps. Most employees have abandoned traditional desks and now have open work spaces.

“This drives transparency which drives creativity. The cross team awareness and collaboration is all about the culture,” he says.

Mr. Mandel further explains that the physical space also allows project teams to co-create, fail and learn which then can be applied to other projects. “We have something called standups,” he says describing a team ritual where failures are dissected and even celebrated.

During one of the standup sessions, the customer experience of was discussed. “Team members thought performance and reliability were someone else’s problem,” Mr. Mandel explains. Through the standup process Telus quickly started driving the right changes to create a performance culture so that everyone was maniacally focused on things like reliability and performance. This led to more stabilized and well-performing website.

Jim Senko, senior vice-president of small business and emerging markets at Telus, and his team are responsible for product development and management. This includes technologies such as mobile payments, mobile wallets, mobile commerce, consumer health and consumer identity solutions.

“I boil intrapreneurship down to passion and innovation that is outcome driven, and by bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to this environment,” Mr. Senko says. He believes agility in a large organization is extremely important for innovation.

He employs a fail-fast, recover-fast mindset within his team – in other words, a culture where it is okay to fail.

“Learn from failures and move on,” Mr. Senko says. To support the notion of agility, Telus has emulated a FedEx Corp. model that inspires innovation from within.

Chitra Anand/Globe and Mail/January, 2015