There’s a great scene in Family Guy. Peter Griffin has just won a boat. But upon redemption, he’s offered something else: A mystery box. He explains to Lois, "A boat's a boat, but a mystery box could be anything. It could even be a boat!" It’s too enticing to resist, so Peter takes the mystery box. (To Peter’s dismay, it does not contain a boat.)
I can’t help but to think about this scene as I open the sample Adobe Kickbox that I’ve been sent—a mystery box for Adobe employees’ next big ideas. It’s a simple red cardboard box, sealed by a fire alarm graphic that reads "pull in case of idea." Inside, you’ll find a set of instructions to "beat" the box, a Bic pen, two sets of Post-it notes, a timer, a Staples mini notebook for "Bad Ideas," a slightly larger spiral notebook, a World Market caramel and sea salt chocolate bar, and a $10 Starbucks gift card.
Oh, and one more thing: A $1,000 prepaid Citi card that employees can spend however they like without ever justifying a purchase to a manager or filing an expense report.
The philosophy behind Kickbox is simple: The most creative people lurking inside Adobe might not want to deal with the bureaucracy of pitching what could become the company’s next hit product. So Kickbox is built to be an all-in-one package to enabling anyone to prototype, test, and iterate her concept with as little corporate overhead as possible. To date, 1,000 employees at Adobe have cracked open a Kickbox. And 23 have seen their ideas graduate to receiving more investment from senior management.
"When you trust people, they’ll live up to your expectations," says Adobe’s Chief Strategist and Vice President of Creativity Mark Randall. "They’re the CEO of their idea. They’ll allocate their resources and figure out how to move ahead."
Development on Kickbox started two years ago, when Adobe moved from its old business model—of selling retail boxes containing Photoshop and Illustrator each year—to offering Creative Cloud subscriptions. Adobe had effectively dismissed itself from the "what’s going to be in our next version of Photoshop to get people to buy it" rat race, and in doing so, also eliminated those shipping deadlines to innovate. Randall thought it was the perfect time to uproot the company’s approach to fielding and investing in new ideas. The batch photo processor Adobe Lightroom , after all, was the idea of just one person. Why couldn’t more products be like that?
He also developed Kickbox as an attempt to turn that creative spark that Silicon Valley companies so often chase with hackathons and startup bootcamps into a tangible product. He interviewed employees to learn about what keeps them from presenting the sort of big ideas that might reshape their company. And what he heard probably sounds familiar to you—logistics and bureaucracy, the necessity to justify every little investment of an experiment. In two words: convincing management.
But Randall realized something big: For the price of funding a single $1 million project, he could place 1,000 $1,000 bets. He could lower risk and increase his odds of landing a hit idea. As he puts it to me, "We only need one to work for the program to pay for itself."
Any employee can request a Kickbox. It is not a program based on merit, and an employee's direct manager cannot veto the request. There is no deadline to turn in results. And there is no punishment or judgement if a Kickbox project fails. (In fact, Randall brags that many of his most successful Kickboxers were on their second red box.)
Employees can attend an optional (but strongly recommended) two-day course, in which they learn a suite of new skills, like buying Google Adwords, polling customers, and measuring engagement of apps. Following that, they’re given the box.
The box is built to contain everything someone needs to hatch an idea—or, to be more precise, an idea that can be readily launched and tested through a website. It has creature comforts like chocolate and caffeine and Post-its for plenty of startup-style brainstorming. But it also comes with a six-level curriculum, presented in colorful cardstock. Each level contains a few exercises and a checklist to complete. Complete each level, and you beat the box.
The levels are Inception (nail down your motivation behind the idea), Ideate (generate a lot of ideas), Improve (hone one idea), Investigate (set up an experiment to test the idea), Iterate (tweak to what the data says), and Infiltrate (pitch your idea to management to back it with some real time and money). The six steps read a bit like the scientific method—simple enough to understand—but each card really drives the person to take the substeps necessary to complete the level. That’s where the cards are actually practical to reference.
For instance, the Level 1 Inception step instructs you to write why you care about this project in a Mad Libs-style sentence. Level 2’s Ideate forces you to brainstorm with 45 minutes on the timer. Level 3’s Improve includes charts to score and evaluate your idea. Level 4’s Investigate contains a 12-step process for launching an experimental website.
On top of that, there are goals with literal checkboxes. To beat Level 4’s Investigate, you’ll need to set up a test website. And to beat Level 5’s Iterate, you’ll need to get 100 or more visitors there.
It’s highly systematic, and to be honest, a little overwhelming to glance through as a casual observer. One thing’s for sure: As soon as you finish that chocolate bar, the Kickbox is a lot of work.
No major Adobe product you know today has yet been born from a Kickbox. Sure, testers have launched some neat ideas that have shown some market promise, like a site where you can hire Photoshop pros to fix up your photos in five minutes (which Adobe says was influential in guiding them to purchase the online content company Fololia for $800 million). But until Adobe begins creating true commercial products out of Kickboxes, it’s hard to completely validate the concept. Only 60 of the 1,000 worldwide testers have completed the program so far. Of those, 23 people have actually beat Level 6—selling management on their idea—at which time, they’ve received a prize: A blue box.
The blue box is a real mystery box, as Randall won’t reveal what’s inside. (A million dollar check? A king-sized chocolate bar? A boat?!?) To find out, you’d need to be an Adobe employee. But if you’d like to take a whack at your own red Kickbox, and you have $1,000 in your own funding, Adobe has made the program open-source for individuals or companies to adopt.