Interview with Ralph Hartmeier
"Just talking about innovation is definitely not innovation." – Innovation culture, learning from mistakes, and giant red boxes.
Today's interview is with GETKICKBOX Co-founder & Growth, Ralph Hartmeier, who's first real touchpoint with innovation was while working at a large corporation as a student. He soon realized how difficult it can be to develop ideas and innovate within large organizations, so he took the matter into his own hands…
Tell us more about your initial experience of innovation and how it has influenced your view of innovation today.
My first experience of innovation within a corporation, or rather the lack of it, made it clear how much processes and expectations get in the way of people being genuinely innovative. I also learned that all of the theoretical frameworks I'd learned about at university were not always applicable in the corporate world. So, I founded my own startup. During this time, it quickly became apparent that innovation should be at the core of every company because it's the only way to be truly sustainable. It also needs to be very hands-on and not merely theoretical. Just talking about innovation is definitely not innovation; you need to create a culture of innovation.
What are the most critical factors for creating a culture of innovation in an organization?
In my opinion, the most important thing is to involve everybody, from all areas and levels of the business. I still talk to companies who assume they only need to include the management team in an innovation project and leave out those working at the front. This is a big mistake because those working on the frontline tend to have brilliant ideas as they are often customer-facing with the closest contact to the daily business. For this reason, it's crucial to bring them along on the innovation journey and make sure they are trained on what innovation means, leading me to the second point…
The focus should not be on output or the potential ROI alone but instead on the educational aspect. This way, Kickboxers learn a lot about new working methods, etc. along the way, and gain an understanding of why it is so important for a company such as Swisscom to actively invest in innovation.
Finally, – this might sound obvious, but it's a mistake that is still often made – you can't create a culture of innovation if the top management isn't behind it. The signal needs to come from the top. After all, nobody will share their ideas and take the risk of "failing" if top management doesn't step up and openly call for people to experiment. This creates a healthy attitude towards mistakes and failure that views them as a valuable way to learn and grow rather than hiding them away in the metaphorical desk drawer.
How does GETKICKBOX put these ideas into practice?
Well, firstly, we really do involve everyone. Rather than eliminating 90% of ideas in the first step and pumping large sums of money into the remaining 10%, we open things up. Anyone can take part in the RedBox phase. After all, who are we to judge whether a raw idea is good or not. In turn, we have to keep costs down. For this reason, we have a smaller initial budget for each project and have automated as much as possible to make the solution scalable.
To get more people involved, it was also crucial to make GETKICKBOX as accessible as possible. We got rid of a lot of the specialist jargon, which can put people off, and gamified the entire process to make it more fun. This way, we also bring in the educational aspect without it feeling like another training course, so anyone can be a Kickboxer and learn about new ways of working in the process.
And so, what's the worst thing that can happen? Even if an idea goes no further than the RedBox phase. The company has spent a maximum of 1000 CHF, and the Kickboxer has had an opportunity to work on a fulfilling project and learn new working methods. All parties will have gained more than if the company had said no from the beginning. And believe me, we have been proven several times wrong: Ideas which might sound 'stupid' first, turned out to become valuable for the company since the intrapreneur was able to iterate and pivot. As a result, we should step away from judging raw ideas!
How much preparation is required from a company to get started with GETKICKBOX?
Before launching the GETKICKBOX program in a company, we conduct a training and design session, where we try to understand their unique requirements. GETKICKBOX is (quite literally) an out-of-the-box solution so we can get projects up and running very quickly. However, no organization is alike! Therefore, there are certainly options for customization, e.g., marketing tools, the physical boxes, or even the software. However, we do encourage an open discussion about this. It is not always beneficial to completely customize a KICKBOX campaign to fit in with a company's own CI, as it can prevent it from standing out and relegate it to the ranks of "yet another tool from management." Maintaining a certain differentiation enables it to be more provocative and can help adoption. But it's a delicate balance, as we also want employees to feel at home when they open their KICKBOX.
Speaking of adoption rates, how can companies help to ensure people use GETKICKBOX?
I get this question a lot. Some companies claim that they're so conservative that there won't be any ideas. But our experience shows that if they follow certain best practices, it will work. The first deciding factor is top management engagement. This is essential because nobody will step up with an idea if they are worried that they might be disadvantaged in their everyday role because of it. This isn't as hard as it might sound – a simple video of the CEO advocating GETKICKBOX on the platform homepage does wonders.
Secondly, it's essential to create a brand identity for GETKICKBOX that will stand out and use this in a creative marketing campaign. This is why we chose our name, the color red, the boxes, etc. This can be anything from intranet articles to guerrilla marketing with an over-dimensional RedBox placed in the lobby to gain attention.
Finally, you need to leverage the people. Celebrating successes (and by successes, I don't just mean the projects that made it to the Blue- or GoldBox phases) is vital. By telling their stories and allowing them to share their experiences, you inspire and encourage others to share their ideas.
Which resources are provided to help companies and Kickboxers through the process?
The physical KICKBOX (aka toolbox) is a key element and includes the handbook, which guides Kickboxers through the process from raw idea to a validated idea in a very gamified way. This handbook has evolved, and the latest version is the result of feedback from over 100 people. Then there's the software platform, where Kickboxers can find experts within their company and contact external service providers, such as our certified GETKICKBOX coaches, who are trained in our specific process. The coaches are there to ask the right questions, encourage them to go out into the real world, test their ideas, and give them emotional support. However, while we provide a lot of resources to help along the way, Kickboxers aren't forced to use them. We see ourselves in the role of the enabler, so we provide Kickboxers with everything they need – they can use as much or as little of it as they like.
Finally, our peer community is the third essential element besides the toolbox and platform. We quickly realized that we were not alone on this journey. Lots of corporations are experiencing the same challenges. How to attract new talent, motivate existing employees, handle digitalization, and come up with new products, the list goes on. For this reason, we created a network of those responsible for GETKICKBOX in the respective companies, which covers a huge range of different organizations. We regularly meet up (digitally) to discuss challenges and solutions, experiences, and ideas about KICKBOX and innovation. And this works both ways, everyone feels supported, and the peer community has played a significant role in making KICKBOX what it is today. The toolbox, the platform, etc. are all products of co-creation, which we genuinely believe in.
So, what makes a good Kickboxer?
But if you look at those who have successfully moved on to the Blue and GoldBox phases, they have two things in common. Firstly, they are very passionate about their project; after all, intrinsic motivation is critical. Secondly, they are very resilient. No matter what the project or the product is, the process is going to be a rollercoaster with plenty of ups and downs, so you need to be able to handle that.
Which skills do Kickboxers take away from the process into their everyday work?
One of the Kickboxers' major lessons is how to apply the "human-centered design" and "lean startup" methods in practice. These are both methods that a lot of corporations talk about but rarely implement successfully. However, we don't explicitly mention these methods during the process but guide the Kickboxers through the steps, making it much more accessible. Funnily enough, I recently bumped into a colleague who's been through the RedBox phase, and he told me how he'd become stuck while working on a presentation. He then left his desk, made a paper prototype, and asked his co-workers for feedback before continuing. This is an excellent example of the transformational impact these working methods can have on Kickboxers' everyday work.
Additionally, the whole process gives Kickboxers a new understanding of mistakes and the value of learning from them. No matter the outcome, Kickboxers are required to hold a presentation at the end of the process. Here, they either talk about why they want to continue to the BlueBox phase or why they don't and what they have learned from the process. We treat all of these presentations equally and publish them all on the platform so that the "failures" are celebrated as opportunities to learn in the same way we celebrate successes. This understanding of learning is essential for innovation.
It sounds like there's a lot to be gained from all sides! Thanks for your time, Ralph.