Meet John. He worked in a company with a corporate strategy office but no innovation department. When our firm ran an innovation workshop at John’s company, he took to innovation like a duck to water. Unfortunately, the company’s innovation culture didn’t evolve quickly enough for John, which left him feeling stifled. He ended up leaving the company to pursue innovation full-time.

Bizarre, right? John spent years in a company with zero innovation happening, but stayed put. Then, just when the company was seeing the light, he left. And yet, John’s story is a lot more common than it should be. Every time, it is frustrating to watch.

John’s decision to decamp was a sharp setback for more than one reason. He’s is the type of employee that any company would prize: able to think outside the box, to move fast while staying motivated and engaged.

But there’s more. People like John build considerable knowledge about innovation in his company. What works and what doesn’t. Who’s helpful and who’s not. It’s knowledge that’s impossible to transfer.

John is an innovation piggy bank, chock full of coins of wisdom that were painstakingly collected over the previous months. Losing him sets the company back months or even years in its innovation journey.

So why is it that the most innovative team members quit the company, just as the company is becoming more innovative? We see that the reasons are usually one of these four:

1. Going Cold Turkey is a Hard Transition

In many companies, employees don’t stay in innovation in the long term. They may join the innovation team for a few years to experience a change of pace or try something new.

When they rotate back into the core business, for reasons ranging from professional growth to personal preference, many find that leaving a co-working atmosphere and the innovation process isn’t easy. After the experience of the innovation department with its thrilling highs and lows, going back to the day to day business with its fool proof processes can be just plain dull.

Remember the computer mainframe in Alien named MOTHER that kept systems running while the crew was in hypersleep? Well, returning to the business can seem like a return to hypersleep.

Management should take steps to help team members adjust as they move back into the orbit of the company’s established structure and way of working.

2. Someone Finds their ‘Calling’

Sometimes, you just strike gold. You bring an employee into innovation that truly has the skillset to excel: quick-thinking, adaptable, persevering, and entrepreneurial. What you didn’t plan for is unearthing that person’s ‘calling’.

Oftentimes, people discover they love entrepreneurship and the innovation effort so much they decide to strike out on their own and build their own company.

When this happens, try to find ways to prevent losing access to their accumulated insights and experience.

Chris was a true intrapreneur and by most standards he enjoyed an excellent standing in the company. He enjoyed the confidence of many C-levels and department heads.

But Chris was impatient: he felt he had to report to too many stakeholders in the company, which meant he couldn’t gain speed in his innovation projects. He took a measured leap and started his own innovation consulting business. Instead of bidding adieu to Chris, the company hired him as a consultant to work in tandem with C-level executives.

Next time one of your star workers leaves, don’t burn bridges. Instead, see if you can form a partnership that’s in everyone’s best interest. Knowing there is a stable, trustworthy partner outside the restraints of internal politics can be a huge boon for the company.

3. Even Clark Kent Needs a High Five Now and Then

Management often sees the innovation team as full of entrepreneurial heroes that are so intrinsically motivated by the desire to create that they don’t need the ongoing maintenance that regular employees get.

We see cases where the innovation’s team ideas are a bit too far from the core or too radical to implement. They want to work on these “bet the company” ideas but aren’t allowed. Now they feel forced into working on ‘mundane’, incremental innovations that don’t excite them. Another John or Chris story in the making.

The lesson: don’t think that your innovators find their motivation in the hunt. Even the most dedicated intrapreneurs need a small kill now and then, a quick win that offers a sense of accomplishment and pride. Even Clark Kent needs high five every now and then.

Don’t worry, this won’t distract them – it will build a sense of accomplishment and will be a first step towards reaching more ambitious goals.

4. Innovation Programs Knee-Cap Employee Career Advancement

Finally, the brutal truth is that becoming an intrapreneur can hurt your career.

Take a top sales person joining an innovation track. Her direct manager will still expect her to hit her targets (and then some – he’s counting on her!). That’s some intense career pressure.

And what if the innovation doesn’t produce results? Innovation, especially for companies new at the game, should not be about results first but about building capabilities. The CEO might know that, but it can be a hard sell inside the organization, where colleagues and management might grumble about a lack of speedy business results or revenue generated by the intrapreneurs.

Even if they know better, intrapreneurs feel immense pressure to return from the elephant hunt with an elephant. Sometimes, that pressure can become so intense that intrapreneurs take the leap to a new career elsewhere.

How can you avoid losing your intrapreneurs?

Well, a good starting point is accepting upfront that good people will leave – maybe even your best.

You can adapt by finding a way to keep your employees in the family. If an innovator wants to leave because they have the next big idea, maybe it’s time to consider some corporate venturing. It shows the employee not only that you believe in their work and ideas, but also that you value what they bring to the company.

Or why not throw all your chips in the center? If a truly valued innovator is preparing to pack their bags, you could take a cue from the Adobe Systems Kick-box. Give the employees you believe in the kick-box of all kick-boxes: let them have free reign on a $100,000 budget and the expertise of leaders in the company.

Tell them to come back in 6 months’ time with the solution they’re dying to pursue. You might be pleasantly surprised.

About the author

Nick De Mey is the co-founder of Board of Innovation, a consulting company with specialists in intrapreneurship programs, business model innovation & design thinking.The focus of Board of Innovation is to develop startup-like innovation incubators in a corporate landscape. Amongst others, Board of Innovation has helped companies like Roche, Thomson Reuters, SAPPI & ING to channel internal innovative capacity with success. Nick has a mixed background in industrial design, digital tech & innovation management.