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How to Inspire Innovation in Your Workforce

How to Inspire Innovation in Your Workforce

What we’ve learned from collaborative events.

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Geoff Oxholm, a research engineer at Adobe, filmed breathtaking footage of a church while on a trip to Russia, onion domes and all, but a giant pole in the front ruined his perfect shot. Frustrated by the unwanted photobomb, Geoff decided to do something about it. His solution: develop Project Cloak, which essentially masks unwanted objects so that the net result is a video worth playing.

As wow-inducing as Project Cloak is, even more compelling is the forum — Adobe Sneaks — that gave Geoff the opportunity to create a solution to his pet peeve. A handful of “Sneaks” are presented each year on the Adobe MAX and Summit mainstages to crowds of thousands of  people. The program lets Adobe employees propose ideas they want to explore. If approved, they’re given the resources to bring their ideas to fruition.

You’re sitting on a gold mine

Every enterprise is perched on a remarkable resource that, when unleashed, can deliver a competitive edge — homegrown talent. There are probably many people like Geoff in your organization, but is the company helping them develop their innovative ideas?

Working smarter today doesn’t just mean corralling employees into cubicles and clocking the 9 to 5. It means giving them room to think and grow.

At Adobe, we have a number of creative endeavors to facilitate collaboration among employees. With each effort, we’ve learned something new that helps us work better, and we’ve discovered some remarkable innovations along the way. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned that can help your organization as you consider the best way to take advantage of the talent inside your company.

Lesson 1: Without the right platform, companies will miss great ideas

You know that good ideas can come from anywhere, but they need an outlet for expression. It’s all good and well for a company to say they nurture creative impulses, but it’s really difficult to enable thinking outside the box when deadlines loom and work revolves around project meetings.

Our Sneaks program and week-long Adobe Document Cloud hackathon are examples of programs that give employees just that: enough breathing room and mental space to pursue passion projects they’ve been dreaming about but haven’t had the time to work on.

The basic premise of the Document Cloud hackathons is that employees take a week off from production schedules, and they take the time to pursue what they think is important. “One of the many great things that have resulted from such events is the cross-pollination from different groups that have never worked together before,” says Rick Treitman, entrepreneur-in-residence at Adobe.

Similarly, Sneaks acts like a talent scout for the company, providing a stage for the most innovative ideas to surface, giving employees an opportunity to explore passion projects.

“The real value goes beyond the technology though… Nearly all participants in the program go back to their regular work with newfound vision on how to take ideas and prototypes and get them into product roadmap,” says Steve Hammond, a senior director for the Adobe Experience Cloud business who leads the Sneaks program.

Events like these can mean big wins for enterprises. We’ve had many creative ideas birthed as a result of the hackathons, like an accessibility project that helps people who are blind fill out forms automatically with a Siri-like interface. We estimate 60 percent of the concepts that are presented at Sneaks make their way into our final Adobe products.

These collaborative programs motivate and transform the participants as much as they may benefit the company’s bottom line. Employees learn to create a roadmap — developing a kernel of an idea into a fully realized concept. Cross-pollination between various teams (product managers as well as designers) helps lubricate the free flow of ideas. “Intrinsic motivation is a much stronger motivation than extrinsic motivation, and this is a chance to do what you believe in that is both empowering and motivating,” Rick says.

Lesson 2: Fuel creativity in a compressed time frame

Love the idea of a hackathon but not so wild about a week-long commitment? Adobe’s Creative Jams, which are like hackathons on steroids, compress all that imaginative juice into a day-long event.

A Creative Jam brings designers, illustrators, and a variety of others together to learn about new tools and then work on a themed design challenge for three hours. Inspirational and creative speakers anchor the day-long event, and the final output is judged by both a panel of experts and an audience of the organization’s employees. These events have become so popular that we’ve gone on the road and hosted them for other companies like Quicken Loans, The Home Depot, and Mattel.

Jerry Silverman, who spearheads Creative Jams for Adobe’s enterprise customer segment, believes the biggest advantage of this and similar programs is that they give employees an opportunity to step away from their regular work environment and interact in new ways with people they wouldn’t normally work with. A short bootcamp that teaches them how to use the latest creative tools and a three-hour design challenge doesn’t sound like much time to formulate great innovation, but the results consistently surpass expectations. “The most surprising thing is that these artists and visual designers can come up with such fully baked concepts and fully realized visions on the themes in such a short window of time,” Jerry says.

As we’ve watched the concept of the Creative Jam develop and evolve, we’ve seen that even the slightest change from day-to-day workflows and monotony can make huge differences for creative teams, although it may seem counterintuitive. “Creativity is not always clean, and doesn’t always fit into a spreadsheet,” Jerry says.

Lesson 3:  Invest the resources to eliminate the barrier to innovation

Many great ideas get stuck in the mud simply because creative teams don’t have the time or  funding to jump-start their visions. Sometimes all it takes for your employees to tap into their unlimited potential for creativity is a little nudge in the right direction, and even a few resources to feed their fires.

We’ve addressed this problem through our Kickbox program. “Kickbox is an innovation process that comes packaged in a box, and inside is everything an innovator will need to come up with an interesting idea — or, ideally, a bunch of them — and then evaluate those ideas to narrow-in on one that they’d like to investigate, develop, and try to actualize,” says Mark Randall, vice president of creativity at Adobe.

The value of the Kickbox program goes beyond the actual ideas themselves, it also gives employees an incredible amount of experience as they go through the process. “They now know how to come up with a valuable idea, express it concisely, evaluate it internally, validate it externally with customers, and then use that real-world data to build support in the company to pursue the idea. Cultivating that skill set is enormously valuable, both for that individual and for the company,” Mark says.

Each “innovation in a box” kit comes with a prepaid credit card in the amount of $1,000. These funds are used by innovators to validate their ideas. We’ve found that instead of throwing large amounts of money at a few projects that may or may not see the light of day, providing an infusion of money in $1,000 increments helps more projects move further along. The smaller cash amounts allow for the funding of many projects that show potential, allowing projects with staying power to develop organically. If they don’t evolve, the amount of money invested is not enough to consider the whole project a waste.

Even the most talented innovators need a road map and money to propel them. We released Kickbox as open source in 2015, so anyone can freely use the program in their own organizations. Since then, it’s been adopted by Cisco, Mastercard, Caterpillar, and Swisscom, as well as non-profits like the Peace Corps. The essential items in a Kickbox innovation starter kit may vary from organization to organization, but the concept is the same: a small investment of resources into your employee pool can yield a large return on innovative results.

Today’s competitive workforce demands creative, out-of-the-box thinking, and some of the most brilliant ideas can often come from your very own talent pool. To get there, invest in building a community that encourages creativity and provides a variety of forums where the cross-pollination of ideas can blossom into great innovations.

By creating the right environment for collaboration, organizations like yours can work smarter and access the best and brightest ideas.

For additional thoughts about how to get great work done, read more articles in our Working Smarter collection.

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