Why Governments Would Never Deploy Adobe's Kickbox and Why Maybe They Should

Friday, February 13, 2015

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

Earlier this week Adobe's employee innovation program Kickbox got a lot of attention online when the company announced they were open sourcing the entire thing. Given that this just hit the ecosystem this month I'm still poking around on the site. That said, I'm impressed by the overview and dig that they have a separate section for senior folks looking to deploy Kickbox in their organizations and another featuring the core contents of the program (in fact, it reminds me a lot of the approach to public sector mutuals in the UK).

Kickbox tl;dr 

Kickbox is a two-day innovation workshop built around a starter-kit for would-be innovators. The workshop is designed to remove typical barriers to innovation: money, a process, innovation tools, and energy (caffeine and sugar); short (PR) video below:

Kickbox explained

For a more complete overview of the Kickbox program (which has been operating for the last 18 months) I suggest watching Mark Randall's presentation at the Lean Startup Conference embedded below.

Deflecting your early skepticism

Yes, you are right, Kickbox is likely as much about good PR for Adobe as it is about innovation. However, the fact that they open sourced it in its entirety should be taken as evidence that it has paid dividends for the company, that Adobe thinks its content can stand up to scrutiny on the web, and that it will attract talent that shares its values and commitments. I, for one, plan on having a closer look in the weeks ahead.

Why Governments Won't Use Kickbox

Because it would never work here.

Because our accountability culture makes it easier to approve $24,500 on a sole source contract than to approve 25 individual spends of $1,000.

Because not every $1,000 expenditure could be directly tied to a demonstrable 'innovation'.

Because every failed attempt will be met by the ruthless faux outrage that dominates our public discourse.

Because the relative safety of the status quo is easier for people to bear than the uncertainty of experimentation and failure.

Because backing such an experimental approach in spite of the lack of incentives to do so would require courage and constitute a heroic act.

Because once we've committed to a particular course of action, pursuing multiple and possibly competing strategies would likely be considered by many poor form rather than healthy experimentation, or more plainly A/B testing.

Why not A/B Test Innovation Labs and Kickbox?

Kickbox is built around the idea that innovation can happen anywhere — that if you lower barriers to participation and equip people with the right tools and resources, they can ideate quickly, lever their networks, and experiment at extremely low costs. As a result, Kickbox is a 'fail fast' approach to innovation and focuses more on building the innovative capacity of people (e.g. how they approach problems and the networks they have to solve them) rather than delivering a particular innovation or series of innovations. In short, it moves the organization as a whole towards thinking about problems and how to solve them differently today (and tomorrow) than it did yesterday.

Labs are fundamentally different. They centralize rather than diffuse the innovation function, create new institutional costs, situate those costs firmly within a subsection of the hierarchy, and reinforce the status quo of situational power structures where access and information are the ultimate sources of influence. As a result, labs are vulnerable to the same bureaucratic pressures that slow innovative forces in the rest of the organization. They are inherently exclusive (not everyone can work in the lab — that would after all undermine its very essence), which means that they are more focused on building and diffusing innovation rather than building widespread capacity for innovation.

Caveat #1: Yes, I'm an innovation lab skeptic and I understand that I'm swimming against the current on this one; and while I've written about them numerous times (See: On Dragon's Dens, Hackathons and Innovation Labs and/or The Future of Policy Work) I also know a lot of smart people who have been assigned to them. These are capable and committed people, many of whom I would consider friends, and all of whom I wish success because we need all the success we can get on this front.

Caveat #2: I had a conversation recently where I came to the conclusion that innovation labs may in fact just be our response to policy shops turning into issues management shops and that innovation labs are really just our way of re-introducing that function back into our organizations. It's not well thought out, but worth thinking about later when we are done celebrating their launch and evaluating their results.

Caveat #3: One of my biggest fears on the lab front is how likely I think it is that their walls become analogous to the organizational boundaries they were established to help circumvent — that their exclusivity and prestige actually increase the barriers to innovation rather than drop them. One of my earliest lessons in collaboration came from Clay Shirky's Institutions vs Collaboration (circa 2005) which convinced me that there is always more cognitive surplus and capacity outside an organization than within it. If labs are to be successful, those who work in them need to have a very specific skill set, a mandate to reach out to anyone with expertise, and the humility to consistently put themselves second.

My point isn't that one is right and one is wrong but rather we don't know what will work, why and under what circumstances; so why not A/B test these two different types of approaches?

Why maybe they should

Demonstrable results. Short lead times. Low cost (watch the video).

It's a free methodology for experimentation (look, its right here).

Desperate need (look around).