A year ago, Adobe Systems surprised 60 of its employees at an innovation workshop with a red box. It contained a $1,000 prepaid credit card to spend working on an idea for Adobe, a $4 billion software company headquartered in San Jose, California. No questions asked.
Called Kickbox, the innovation effort evolved out “a desire to lower the input threshold,” says Mark Randall, Chief Strategist and VP of Creativity at Adobe. Randall is a former entrepreneur who oversees Kickbox; he sold his most recent startup, a video software company called Serious Magic, to Adobe in 2006. “It’s about doing more experiments faster for less money,” Randall says. “We weren’t failing enough and we weren’t driving enough divergent, wild things. Managing the innovation became the bottleneck.”
Of Adobe’s 11,000 employees, nearly 1,000 have attended Kickbox workshops in cities spanning the U.S., as well as countries like India, Romania, and Germany.
How Kickbox Works
Any Adobe employee is eligible to attend the two-day Kickbox Innovation Workshop, where they learn how to develop ideas, and how to run fast and efficient customer testing to generate feedback. They are taught a six-step process to innovation: inception, ideate, improve, investigate, iterate, and infiltrate. (As in, infiltrate the market.) They leave the workshop with a prepaid credit card to fund their efforts.
Employees are given free rein to develop their ideas, run them by managers, and obtain customer feedback. Randall says that in the workshops, sometimes employees start looking for others with complimentary skillsets to execute their ideas — so sometimes teams form, and sometimes employees fly solo.
Below is an excerpt from a scorecard that participants in the Kickbox program use to collect input from peers about their idea. Randall stresses that it isn’t so much the scores that matter, but the conversations and learning that comes from employees evaluating one another’s ideas. (Click the scorecard to see the full PDF version, part of our Resource Center.)
Getting to Blue Box
Employees whose ideas receive customer and manager validation move on to the “blue box” phase, in which the product or service receives funding, which can range from thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars to fuel further experimentation. Depending on the idea, Randall says, additional support can include mentorship, personnel, or tech resources.
So far, Adobe has awarded 23 blue boxes. One blue box was awarded for KnowHow, a site that offers tutorial videos on how to use various products, including Adobe’s design tools. Akshay Bharadwaj, an Adobe senior product manager from India, came up with the idea. The online tutorials are free or fee-based. Randall jokes that he didn’t even know about KnowHow until after it had 40,000 users, a number that has since grown to 50,000. “I didn’t approve it,” he says. “That’s beautiful; that’s a total success.”
Other blue box ideas include:
- A new feature for Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite, created by a developer in Adobe’s Romania office, that aims to help DPS suggest other content for readers, based on their reading history.
- A way to digitize paper homework using Adobe’s Acrobat, from an Acrobat.com Architect in Boston. His idea would create a way for students to complete homework online with a digital history that’s accessible to students, teachers, and parents.
Customer Feedback is What Counts
As Randall continues to graduate classes of entrepreneurs through his workshops, he says that despite his instructions that it’s customer feedback that matters most, he continues to get pestered for his opinion about their nascent ideas.
“It’s like trying to pick your track and field team from looking at babies in the crib,” he says. “There’s no way to know without data.” And, he adds, “In the area of innovation, pre-existing patterns don’t always fit.”
And while Adobe couldn’t disclose details of many of the ideas in development for confidentiality reasons, it isn’t afraid to talk about the model for Kickbox, which has been creating a buzz. And it is now open-sourcing the program so that other companies can adopt their own version, with details and an online workshop at kickbox.adobe.com.
Here’s a blog post and video about the initiative (which was originally called KickStart):