How to Get your Employees Innovating like Tech Superstars

by Colin Duff

The business press is buzzing with stories about tech. companies who are leveraging employee-driven innovation schemes to great effect. The latest, Adobe Kickbox, looks like something special and conveniently they have open sourced it, so any organisation can deploy it.

Kickbox starts with a two day course on early stage innovation, which any manager from any function can apply to attend. Then the real fun starts with the issuing of a red box which is full of goodies to enable individuals to pursue their idea and circumvent the usual corporate blockers. Goodies include: a Starbucks gift-card, instructions and materials (templates, checklists and a self-gating six stage process to get to proof of concepts) and a $1,000 prepaid credit card to spend at their discretion with no need for receipts.

Three things make Kickbox standout from other employee-led innovation processes. Firstly, the level of empowerment given to individuals is much higher. In addition to the $1,000, there are “no managers, no committees [and] no rules.” They have also banished deadlines, commitments and judgement in appraisals. (Participants do need to convince a committee at the end of stage six, at which point they get a blue box and the potential to secure substantive investment). Secondly, the process requires employees to adopt an entrepreneurial approach by doing things quickly and cheaply. Thirdly, it’s intrinsically scalable. As Mark Randall (the VP who created it) says, ‘Kickbox is playing the law of large numbers, most ideas are expected to fail. But gems will emerge that wouldn’t through traditional processes… and Adobe only needs 1 out of 1,000 ideas to work to be very successful.’

Whilst fundamentally the process is fantastic, many aspects are impractical for normal companies (i.e. the non tech elite). Firstly, most will balk at the high failure rate (even if it will ultimately deliver more blockbusters). Of the thousand boxes Adobe have issued, so far only sixty employees completed the first six stages; only twenty three have secured investment; and none have led to blockbusters yet. Secondly, the process is designed for ideas that can be tested through websites, so it’s less useful for companies who sell physical products. Thirdly, it was developed to be used by top talent, and frankly it is asking a lot of your average middle manager. Finally, good luck getting approval for the $1,000 discretionary cards.

However, by making a couple of adaptions any company can effectively deploy Kickbox and greatly increase the idea success rate:

1. Assign everyone an innovation coach: Whilst Kickbox espouses the value of giving employees the freedom to ‘be the CEO of their idea,’ even the best CEOs use coaches (as do software developers in the form of scrum-masters). The best coaches are seasoned innovators who can provide advice and help overcome inevitable roadblocks; especially the really tough ones in the physical world. For example on a recent employee-led innovation project I ran for an alcohol company, despite their valiant efforts, participants struggled find bars who were willing to let them run live experiments with customers. Whilst others within the business had relationships with bar owners, they were reluctant to share them outside of the formal bureaucratic channels. So, I simply commissioned a specialist recruiter – with lots of experience and contacts doing this sort of thing – and one phone call, a few hundred dollars and six days later we had four bars in place. Similarly, on another project with a food manufacturer employees were struggling to test sales due to arduous food safety and supply chain issues. To get around these I paid some local shops to dry test the products by putting empty boxes on their shelves and recording how many customers picked them up. The moral of both stories is that many things that are straightforward for experienced innovators can be a nightmare for regular employees, hence the necessity of a coach.  (Coaches are also the ideal person to sign off project expenses if your company’s finance team can’t live with self-certification).

2. Impose some structure: Adobe may be okay without having any timescales for delivery, but most companies are not. And if Kickbox doesn’t deliver results quickly, cynical myopic managers will often prevail in killing it. So, at least initially, consider turbo charging the process by providing dedicated time for employees to work on it with fixed deadlines for completing stages. On another employee-driven innovation project I was involved with we gave employees two weeks to complete each stage, with half a day’s assigned work time, before forcing them to on the next one or quit their project (none quit). Whilst this meant some of the prototypes were a little scrappier than would have been ideal it had a galvanising effect on everyone involved; as any innovator will tell building momentum on projects is one of the biggest determinants of success.

Now go forth and start your employee-driven innovation revolution!

image credit: Kevin Slavin

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Applying "The Lean Startup" in a Corporate EnvironmentColin Duff is an Innovation Consultant at ?What If! You can follow him on Twitter @ColinPDuff