Have you heard about Adobe’s Kickbox? It’s a little red box filled with materials that take employees through a six-step, self-guided innovation process. Employees who have a new idea they want to pursue take a workshop and then proceed through the stages of innovation on their own. Each box contains a credit card with $1000 in seed money.
As Adobe’s VP of Innovation Mark Randall told Forbes, Kickbox has dramatically transformed innovation at the company. Whereas before Adobe pursued only one to two dozen ideas per year, since Kickbox’s roll-out they have pursued 1,200 ideas over two years at a much lower absolute cost. Many of these ideas have failed, but the overall volume of successful ideas has increased. Innovation used to be the purview of just a few employees. With Kickbox, the company has opened innovation up to the masses, making it a much deeper part of the organization’s culture.
Organizations talk all the time about creating cultures of innovation, but they struggle to make it happen. Usually that’s because they’re missing a critical ingredient: Behavior. As the authors of one research study argued, “one’s ability to generate novel ideas for innovative new businesses is a function of one’s behaviors that trigger cognitive processes to produce novel business ideas.” To boost innovation, we need to encourage employees and leaders alike to take specific actions that underlay the creation and pursuit of new ideas. Innovation, in short, must become part of the culture of an organization, reflected in what employees actually do on a daily basis.
A simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach to behavior change won’t work when it comes to innovation, since people differ significantly in their behavior depending on their age. Gen X employees, for instance, are more likely to freely brainstorm new ideas, consulting others with beliefs and perspectives different from their own, including more casual acquaintances. Baby Boomers and traditionalists tend to be more relationship-oriented, huddling with people who are more like them and whom they feel they know and trust. Millennials are more inclined to reach out to people in different industries to “socialize” and further develop new ideas.
To create a strong culture of innovation, organizations must encourage the right behaviors in a generationally friendly way, enabling employees of all ages to feel like they belong to the culture and are capable of adding value. Given the mass entrance of millennials into the workforce and the ascendance of Gen X into leadership positions, organizations should place more emphasis on opening up their cultures to the innovation behaviors these generations favor. No matter how much leaders talk about innovation, a more traditional culture that penalizes employees for making mistakes and discourages rapid and free-ranging experimentation will stifle innovation efforts in the years to come.
Exciting new approaches like Kickbox are essential, because they trigger and encourage shifts in employee behavior. But companies can’t stop there; they must also take into account leadership behavior. The research study cited above linked innovative strategies to four specific leadership behaviors: Questioning, observing, experimenting, and idea networking. Encourage these behaviors among leaders, and you are more likely to get more innovation, and over time, a full-blown culture of innovation. To these behaviors we should add an additional one: Fostering sensitivity to generational differences. Leaders today must be able to inspire and motivate a multi-generational workforce to achieve virtually any organizational goal, including becoming more innovative.
At a recent roundtable convened by ALULA in Philadelphia, leaders from fifteen companies in the area acknowledged how important it was to foster strong, vibrant cultures to drive innovation. So I invite you to ask yourself: How innovative is your culture, really? Does your culture encourage everyone, young and old, to contribute their original thinking? Are mistakes tolerated and learnings shared? And do leaders take steps to make everyone feel welcome? If not, it may well be time to do what Adobe did, and give your culture a little kick.