What is the Kickbox method?

KICKBOX is a bottom-up innovation management method and methodology. As a method, KICKBOX has two main goals: 

  1. To engage employees
  2. To create valuable business cases for the company.

KICKBOX enables every employee to take an active role in the company's innovation process by submitting and validating their own ideas. No gates are set at the beginning of the process and every participant has the chance to prove that their idea is valuable to the company.

Within a few years (starting 2013), KICKBOX became the world’s most popular enterprise innovation framework, used by thousands of organizations.


Is Kickbox a method or a methodology?

KICKBOX is both a method and a methodology. 

KICKBOX is a method since it prescribes a series of steps and a collection of tools to perform a certain task, namely to engage employees and create valuable business cases for companies.

However, KICKBOX is also a methodology, since it offers a rationale on the methods it employs. As a framework it is based on certain beliefs and values, such open innovation, decentralization and flexible hierarchies.


Who invented Kickbox?

The methodology was invented at Adobe in 2013 by Mark Randall, Chief Strategist and VP of Creativity. He then open-sourced it in 2015 and presented KICKBOX at Swisscom, the leading IT- and telecom-company in Switzerland. This led to the founding of GETKICKBOX, which would in 2021 become rready and be spun off.

rready went on to further develop the methodology and support other companies in implementing the KICKBOX program. The full story of this evolution can be read here.


Is KICKBOX open-source?

Like many innovation management methods, KICKBOX values open-source. This is why Adobe and Swisscom open-sourced key parts of their KICKBOX programs and made them available in the KICKBOX Foundation. Everyone, from students to managers and innovation gurus, should be able to validate their own ideas.

The centerpiece of the open-source material is the KICKBOOK, which has been rewritten five times. The current version has been co-created by 100+ innovation leaders from 80+ organizations.

Of course, the KICKBOOK is not the entire KICKBOX methodology, which also entails coaching, onboarding programs, and software. But the KICKBOOK can be thought of as an open-source code that allows building various software products or video games.

KICKBOX itself would not be what it is today without the concept of open-source and community. For example, rready CEO and co-founder, David Hengartner, did originally learn about the method because it was partly open source. He then went on to create a company around KICKBOX.


Who uses KICKBOX?

The KICKBOX method is mostly used by large organizations. Mature companies often find it difficult to recapture the entrepreneurial spirit that created their original success. Government agencies may never have had an innovation culture in the first place, but are suddenly required to lead or at least adapt to megatrends like digitalization.

Today, thousands of organizations are using KICKBOX.

Here a few examples:

  • Multi-nationals: 3M, Cisco, Caterpillar, MasterCard, Swisscom, P&G, Roche, LGT,  Johnson&Johnson, Baloise Group, Siemens Energy
  • Educational institutions: ETH, UNSW, USC, University of Zurich
  • Government agencies: DARPA, United Nations, SBB, Post Luxembourg
  • Non-profits: Peace Corp, Gates Foundation, Kickstart-Innovation


Why do organizations use the KICKBOX method?

The typical use case for KICKBOX is a large company that is under serious pressure to create new products or services within the next few years. They may have tried other approaches before, like innovation consultants or an “innovation week”.

Companies often choose and stay with KICKBOX because:

  1. Decentralized: KICKBOX is truly bottom-up because it includes every single employee. There are no gates to participation.
  2. Scalable: KICKBOX works better the more people participate. There is a multiplier effect, and a SaaS that automates processes makes the method truly scalable.
  3. Employee motivation: Granting employees budget and worktime creates trust – which in turn encourages experimentation and validation
  4. Fail safe system: KICKBOX enables a healthy culture of failure: fail early, fail fast, fail cheap – try again.
  5. Innovation ecosystem: Includes an ecosystem accessible to the company and their employees with access to coaches, service providers and peers.
  6. Benchmarking: The method is widely spread by now and companies can compare their results and exchange notes.
  7. Intrapreneurship: Focuses on intrapreneurship, which includes topics such as stakeholder management and internal pitches.

Newly hired innovation managers also favor the KICKBOX method because it can be implemented relatively fast. It leverages and streamlines whatever is around, including (a possible chaos of) previously installed and mashed-up innovation initiatives. KICKBOX can start producing measurable results within months, which tend to improve the longer the method is consistently applied.

Companies may also have already successfully implemented a top-down innovation method. Now they are looking for another, complementing approach, and KICKBOX is useful for complementing top-down approaches because it works the opposite way.


How does KICKBOX work?

KICKBOX works under the assumption that all the information needed for innovation is already embedded inside an organization. The information is dispersed among the many employees dealing with customers and being exposed to everyday processes. The method aims to activate their creativity so they can start working on improving the processes they know best. 

KICKBOX achieves this by giving each employee time and resources and an equal chance to enter and validate their ideas. The method also implements a transparent process and a corporate culture that favors innovation.

KICKBOX typically works as a multilayered approach:

  • Transparent process: The method gives everyone an equal chance to validate their idea and, once it passes the gates, gives them full responsibility for going through with it. 
  • Discover hidden champions: Because KICKBOX is built to favor creativity, skill, and drive (and not simply the loudest or most dominant), those who succeed are sometimes employees who nobody noticed before.
  • Cultural transformation: Kickbox encourages an agile culture that allows failure and values creativity and experimentation. 
  • Internal innovation brand: having an innovation-week once a year will not work. KICKBOX builds an internal innovation brand, a program that is always on. This is crucial so employees know that innovation is expected. Also because creativity is sometimes unpredictable – when an idea strikes, the process to enter it should be available, easy and straightforward… and not innovation week next year
  • Digital tools: to increase internal visibility and facilitate measurability. An innovation funnel visualizes the process and makes it predictable and transparent for participants.
  • Innovation ecosystem:  Peer-exchange across companies to compare methods or start common projects.

How KICKBOX is implemented in practice ultimately depends on each organization and the coaches they choose. This is how we do it.


The core principles of KICKBOX 

KICKBOX plays on two opposing principles: collective group intelligence versus individual action and responsibility. 

The word corporation comes from the latin “corporare,” which literally means “combine into one body.” We think of an organization as a collective organism, the individual cells working in unison.

KICKBOX aims to fully leverage this hive mind but does so with the opposite concept of individual initiative. Individual employees who succeed in validating their ideas are also responsible for making it work.

The method taps into the distributed knowledge of employees and aims for a playful approach to inspire and encourage the validation of ideas. This is why KICKBOX is decentralized, scalable, and truly bottom-up.


What is bottom-up innovation?

Bottom-up innovation is the concept that ideas can come from anywhere in the organization, and therefore all employees should be given the chance to prove their idea and lead it through the innovation process.

A famous example of bottom-up innovation is the Japanese car-maker, Toyota. They have been using lean manufacturing for decades, part of which is the principle of continuous improvement. In practice, this means that the average Toyota employee makes around 100 ideas for small improvements in their work processes. With 360000 employees, this amounts to millions of ideas per year. Many of these are implemented and save money.

The key idea here is that innovation comes from the bottom, not the top. Even the wisest CEO cannot know every single process in a large multinational company. The knowledge is dispersed in every single employee, and they know best how to improve their processes.


Advantages and disadvantages of bottom-up vs top-down innovation

Should your organization use bottom-up or top-down innovation? Consider the advantages and disadvantages listed below. 

While both approaches are logical opposites in theory, both can and even should be combined in practice. Many companies find that the bottom-up KICKBOX methodology complements their existing top-down innovation programs.

Advantages of top-down innovation methods:

  1. Fast: Top-down innovation often works faster as it tends to come with the buy-in of upper management
  2. Better chances: because top-down innovation projects tend to have access to more resources
  3. Moonshot: focused on long development and therefore useful for moonshot projects (= risky, time-consuming ventures, like the first moon landing)
  4. Too big to fail: This could also be seen as a disadvantage, but maybe you have a project that should not fail at any cost.
  5. Strategic: tighter control of the direction of new ideas

Disadvantages of top-down innovation methods:

  1. Zombie ideas: without a validation process, factually dead ideas (= ideas that no expert would support and no client would buy) will forever walk your corporate hallways.
  2. Anti-meritocratic: The lead of an innovation project often goes to people because of their position – and not because they have the appropriate skills for the task.

Advantages of the bottom-up innovation methods:

  1. Leverage employees: Discover people in your company who have ideas and entrepreneurial drive.
  2. Only the best: The gates are open to everyone, but ideas that cannot prove themselves with data are killed without mercy.
  3. Fail fast and cheap: ideas are continuously evaluated, long before they make it to the customer
  4. Innovation now: suited for short-term innovation based on current market needs

Disadvantages of the bottom-up approach:

  1. Slow: building a coalition of bottom-up intrapreneurs tends to be a slow process
  2. Spartan: ideas and innovations must learn to deal with limited resources
  3. Tough: the need to prove and validate each idea in order to survive can make it harder for long-shot ideas
  4. Needs top-down: requires top-down support in later stages


Synthesis: how to combine top-down and bottom-up innovation

Strictly speaking, neither approach works on its own. On its own, bottom-up innovation will produce an army of ideas that will each die silently without top-down support. In contrast, pure top-down innovation will produce only a few bad or mediocre ideas, which top management will pamper until they fail expensively. 

However, combining top-down and bottom-up innovation correctly will yield the best results.

This is how you do it:

  1. Use bottom-up to create a large number of ideas
  2. Through validation and testing, reduce the number
  3. Use top-down to back the surviving ideas with the resources they need to give them a chance for success


How is KICKBOX bottom-up?

In KICKBOX, everyone, from the newest intern to the CEO, has the chance to prove that their idea is valuable to the company.

To continuously create bottom-up innovation, KICKBOX employs the following methods:

  • No gates are set at the beginning of the process, inviting all employees to participate.
  • A transparent ruleset ensures that the best ideas win, not those favored by management.
  • Gamification keeps methodologies and buzzwords in the background, making the process more approachable.


How KICKBOX uses gamification to democratize innovation

KICKBOX is a solid innovation management framework, but it does not hit participants over the head with it. Employees should focus on realizing their idea without caring about methodologies, theories, and innovation buzzwords. Think of KICKBOX as software: like code, the methodology works in the background for the users, and they won’t even know about it.

This is why KICKBOX aims for gamification of the innovation management process. This means the process works like a game with a clear set of predictable rules.


Why is KICKBOX focused on company culture?

KICKBOX has a meritocratic approach that potentially subverts conventional hierarchies. Consider an extreme case where a newly hired intern (secretly a clone of Steve Jobs) validates her own idea with KICKBOX. She continues to succeed with her idea on the market and the company, not being stupid, makes her head of her own department. Having risen through the ranks quickly, she left older or better-paid managers with fancy degrees behind.

In practice, this is not an everyday KICKBOX-story (yet). But this example embodies the ideal case of decentralized intrapreneurship that the method strives for.

The problem is that this does not go well with conservative companies that emphasize strict hierarchies. Unionized or governmental organizations are also places where your rank and salary are often determined by seniority.

Rigid hierarchies or seniority-based compensation may work well for some organizations, but not if the goal is innovation.


What culture is the worst for innovation?

Innovation depends on fuzzy, psychological concepts such as creativity and individual initiative. It depends on finding the right person with the right idea at the right time. This is why the following aspects of traditional company culture are detrimental to innovation:

  1. Rigid hierarchies: this prevents idea-givers from taking full ownership of their project, which might be handed to someone with fewer skills but more authority. Innovation does not require any hierarchy at all, but an agile, meritocratic one.
  2. No failure allowed: this prevents experimentation and reduces the number of ideas given.

Culture is not a product of chance. Humans are social animals, and they behave in group dynamics. This already starts with two people: each couple has different rituals, families have different habits, villages form different traditions, and so on. We spend too much time in companies to not think about how their culture affects our behavior. 

While it is not so easy to change your cultural background, family, or nation, corporations are much more subject to change. Talented employees will quickly leave a company if it offers them not enough, or join another if it offers them more.


How does KICKBOX affect company culture?

KICKBOX works as an internal company brand for innovation. The method works as a vehicle for sustainable change within organizations. KICKBOX aims to cultivate an open culture of innovation, attracting top talent and equipping them with the skills they need to face the challenges of the future. 

This is how KICKBOX drives an innovative company culture:

  • By giving everyone in the organization a fair chance with their idea, no matter their rank, experience and position, from managers, salespeople to call-center agents or interns. KICKBOX also hands them full ownership of their project, which is the complete opposite of traditional idea management.
  • By inviting employees to shape the company’s future
  • By proving to employees that their ideas matter and are heard
  • By creating an internal brand that is known in your company for innovation
  • By involving not only idea givers but also experts and a whole innovation ecosystem  to support and back up the intrapreneur

This cultural transformation does not happen on its own though. The prerequisite is to have the KICKBOX process in place for a long time, consistently and for everyone.


What is the process in KICKBOX?

This is a simplified version of the process, from the perspective of the employee. A company implementing KICKBOX for the first time will have to implement internal marketing and coaches first, too. However, this can happen almost in parallel.

  1. RedBox: Validate
    The RedBox phase lasts 2 months. The goal of the Kickboxer is to validate his idea and its potential. Therefore, he receives a 1000 CHF budget, 20% of his working time, access to internal and external experts and much more. Eventually, the Kickboxer has to convince a sponsor with a pitch presentation. 
  1. BlueBox: Pilot
    If the Kickboxer manages to find a sponsor, the 4 month BlueBox phase starts. With a budget of CHF 10000-50000, he will run a pilot with real customers. Besides that he will get access to coaching sessions, sprint workshops and many useful innovation modules.


  2. GoldBox: Implement
    After the Kickboxer could prove that there is a real business potential behind his idea, the GoldBox starts. He has created his dream job and now works 100% on his project. This can be within a line organization or as a corporate spin-off.


Insights from years of KICKBOX practice

We have been applying KICKBOX in large organizations for five years. When theories hit reality, at least one of the two must change. Here are the condensed lessons for innovation management from applying the KICKBOX method:

1. Go easy on the gates 
When applying the phase-gate-like methods, the innovation manager’s job is not to be a gatekeeper, but, on the contrary, an enabler. Focus on creating space so people can fully explore the potential of their idea.

2. Killing raw ideas is expensive
This happens far too often: an internal innovation campaign asks employees to submit their ideas, only to be shot down by an expensive management board for entirely subjective reasons.
Solution: let the market judge the idea instead and give everyone a chance to validate. If they fail, they did so in an inexpensive way and they learned something for the next attempt.

3. Nobody cares about our methods 
Let’s be realistic: concepts such as “lean startup” and “human-centered design” are very useful, but these methods and theories come and go. Some employees are interested, but others are put off by them or find them distracting.
Solution: You are the innovation manager; methods are part of your backpack that you carry. Make sure you apply the methods so seamlessly that nobody even notices you are using them.

4. It’s not only about idea givers
Every company has driven intrapreneurs, but they depend vitally on another type of employee: the innovation-interested expert that does not have their own idea (yet) but can make others' ideas work with their expertise.
Solution: connect driven intrapreneurs and experts across departments and continents in your multinational organization. Online platforms are traditionally key to this – linux was and still is being developed by a global network of experts. Without the technology of the internet, this would not have been possible.

5. Not every employee wants to be an intrapreneur
We designed KICKBOX as automated as possible for scale. This allows as many people as possible to participate.
However, even if people have a great idea, some just don’t have the drive or motivation to go through the ups and downs that come with it. If you notice this too late in the process, you end up with an expensive failure. Not because the idea was bad, but because the person who had the idea was just not that interested in it.
Solution: make intrapreneurs search for a sponsor. If they succeed, this demonstrates enough motivation to qualify for investment.

6. Peer exchange works
No false expectations here: Open innovation sounds great in theory, and we found it works in the real world, too. We have successful cases of cross-company collaborations, enabled by the KICKBOX ecosystem.