100 Best Companies to Work For: One Secret to Success

February 15, 2018, 11:30 AM UTC

Imagine you could put the secret to innovation in a box. You start with a simple cardboard container about the size of a ream of copier paper—and make it fire engine red to get everybody’s attention. On top, you print the words: Pull in case of idea. Inside, you place six brightly colored guide cards to help the recipient, step by step, generate and fine-tune his or her brainchild, gather data to support it, test and challenge it, and ultimately pitch it to the boss. Then, for kicks, you toss in a Starbucks gift card—and, oh yeah, $1,000 in no-questions-asked seed funding.

Fortune's March 2018 issue magazine cover
Fortune’s March 2018 issue magazine cover.

That was the wild notion that Mark Randall, chief strategist and vice president of creativity at Adobe Systems (No. 26 on this year’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list), came up with to ignite innovation at the San Jose–based software and data analytics company. He called it the “kickbox”—a magical cardboard bundle to kickstart creative problem solving. But his own big idea was even wilder: to give the box to any employee in the company who asked for it. That’s right, anybody—no matter if he or she had a good idea…or any clear-cut idea to begin with.

That was in 2013. Since then, some 2,000 Adobe (ADBE) employees have grabbed a box and thought outside of it, churning out novel product offerings and even some improvements to internal operations that have served both customers and employees well. One telling stat: Last year more than 960 Adobe employees filed a patent application. (Only 130 them came from the company’s official “research team.”)

The kickbox—despite its generous $1,000 prepaid credit card—is “actually the smallest innovation investment we make,” says Randall, “compared with our research labs, university collaborations, entrepreneurs-in-residence, or product teams.” And importantly, it has sparked more than just good ideas, it has also helped energize Adobe’s workforce. “Kickbox is a culture change program disguised as an innovation program,” said one university professor who has studied the effort.

Randall, who joined the company 12 years ago after Adobe bought his third startup, has another phrase for it: “Putting trust in action.” When you show the people who know your customers, your systems, your challenges and your opportunities the best that you have confidence in their judgment—it changes the workplace dynamic, he says. Employees go from saying, “Tell me what to do,” to doing what needs to be done.

Indeed, you might say that cultural motif has something to do with Adobe’s remarkable success. The creator of the PDF, Photoshop, and Flash has quintupled its stock value over the past five years under CEO Shantanu Narayen. Its revenues are soaring, its profit margins are plump as a Christmas goose, and a big reason why—say its own employees—is because of how the company treats its employees. Adobe considers its workers free agents of innovation—or as Randall phrases it: “CEOs of their own ideas.”

Read through our annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list, and you’ll see that same theme throughout. Employees at Dropbox (No. 64) are given time each year to work on anything they want, from moonshots to modest side projects. Staffers at design services firm Kimley-Horn (No. 10) are encouraged to create their own “mini practices” within the firm and pursue new markets. Twenty-three of the companies on our list offer workers paid sabbaticals; and some firms, like Nvidia (No. 30), put so much trust in their talent that they offer them unlimited time off.

Not every company, of course, has that kind of relationship with its employees, as Fortune’s Erika Fry and Claire Zillman report in their sobering feature, “HR Is Not Your Friend.” But employers who can forge that trust with their workers seem to have an extra advantage on the competition: They get a potentially never-ending font of fresh ideas.

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “Building an Idea Factory.”