How Adobe kickstarts innovation from its employees

February 17, 2015, 5:14 PM UTC
Adobe Systems Inc. Headquarters Campus
Adobe' s Corporate Headquarters is located in San Jose, California, U.S. on Tuesday, Sept.8, 2010. Photographer:Chip Chipman/Bloomberg.
Photograph by Chip Chipman — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Walk around Adobe headquarters in San Jose, or any of the company’s other locations around the world, and you’re likely to notice that some people have a bright red box sitting on their desks.

Peek inside the box, and you’ll see a prepaid credit card for $1,000, along with some printed materials about six steps Adobe wants people to follow in developing ideas for new products and services. There’s also a Starbucks gift card and a candy bar since, says Mark Randall, “We all know that two of the four main food groups of innovators are caffeine and sugar.”

Randall, who is Adobe’s chief strategist and vice president of creativity, developed the kit, called Kickbox, in his garage about three years ago and started offering it to any Adobe employee who wants one in early 2013. Since then, more than 1,000 of them, from an Acrobat engineer in Boston to a computer scientist in Hamburg, have used it to build their ideas for marketable new products and beta-test them in local markets. An engineer in Romania used Kickbox to explore an idea that led to Adobe’s $800 million acquisition of online photo-and-graphics marketplace Fotolia in December.

“We wanted to figure out how to unleash more innovation, beyond relying on a few big-budget projects from engineering and design teams,” says Randall. “You need those too, of course, and we have them, but Kickbox is a way to get a lot of ideas, including some you’d never find any other way — and some that wouldn’t survive a more bureaucratic vetting process.”

Randall thinks that companies that invest heavily in a few big ideas end up with “a lot of false negatives; that is, really promising ideas that get killed too soon,” before they’ve had a chance to reach customers. By contrast, he says, “If you invest in every single idea, but at a low cost of $1,000 or less to develop and test each one, the winners among them will emerge organically. I’m not smart enough to pick the winners ahead of time.”

Randall says that executives from other companies who have heard about Kickbox have balked at the thought of letting employees test new products in the marketplace without prior approval from anyone. “But a key part of finding out whether you have a viable idea or not is seeing how real, live customers respond to it,” he says. “It might seem risky, but so far, we’ve had no problems.”

Putting the creative process in a box, packed with exercises, suggestions, and a checklist of six steps “makes the concept of innovation a lot less abstract. It gives people a structure and a tangible place to start,” Randall says. He based the six steps on his own experience developing new products as a serial entrepreneur who ran three thriving startups (combined revenues: $100 million) over 20 years before joining Adobe in 2006.

“It’s about being able to move quickly, and listening to customers,” he says. “You can’t really just pay people to innovate. They have to get excited about solving a problem for a customer, and the company has to get behind that.”

Starting a couple of weeks ago, any enterprise that wants to give Kickbox a try can download it for free. Randall says Adobe’s willingness to give its brainchild away is more practical than public-spirited. “Frankly, we decided to open-source it mostly because answering questions about it from people at other companies was taking up so much of my time.”

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