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Putting the innovator in the driver's seat

An interview with GETKICKBOX CEO & Co-Founder, David Hengartner

David Hengartner brought the Kickbox methodology to Swisscom five years ago, and the rest is history. We spoke to him about his career so far, empowerment and digital art.

Initially, I began my career working in and then founding startups. Then I joined Swisscom to develop open innovation and figure out how to collaborate with startups. One time, I was scouting startups at the Next Web Conference in Amsterdam, when I found myself in a keynote by Mark Randall on the Kickbox methodology. I had always been a big fan of bottom-up innovation, so it spoke to me straight away. I went back to my boss at Swisscom and asked if I could try it out. So GETKICKBOX itself actually started out just like any other GETKICKBOX project – as a side project with a small budget.

Eventually, a trainee joined the team, and then the team grew and grew. Now I'm the CEO of GETKICKBOX, powered by Swisscom, with 30 people in the team (10 are young apprentices) all committed to furthering the Kickbox movement. During our last town-hall meeting, I had to pinch myself. Taking this project so far, through all of the different phases, within a corporation as large as Swisscom, has been an incredible experience and crazy rollercoaster – and, of course, an extraordinary personal journey for me as well. 

That means you used the Kickbox method to start GETKICKBOX? Well, that proves that you believe in the methodology as nothing else could!

Indeed. Also, I don't like hierarchies, and in my opinion, Kickbox is the most revolutionary bottom-up innovation method there is. Giving innovators autonomy over their ideas is essential. Kickbox not only gives everybody a chance – from managers, salespeople to call-center agents or interns – but also hands them full ownership of their project, which is the complete opposite of traditional idea management. Actually, I wouldn't describe it as "idea management," but rather "idea execution." We had the wheel over to the innovators by giving them the RedBox – you could also see it as a symbol of empowerment. After all, when it comes to intrapreneurship, it's not about the idea itself, or even the process; it's about the people behind the ideas. The aim is to find the right person, with the right idea, at the right moment in time and to enable them by giving them what they need, and then letting them get on with it.

The concept has evolved since you first encountered it back then, but which best practices have you taken with you?

We started out with the original Kickbox material and two phases – RedBox and BlueBox. We soon began to add new practical components based on our own experiences, e.g., the "GoldBox" phase for implementation, clear time-boxing elements, and services from external providers (like an "AppStore for Innovation"). We also began to program software to automate the program and make it scalable.

The centerpiece has always been the KICKBOOK – an ultimate guide for intrapreneurs.

We have re-written it five times in the past five years. The current version has been co-created by 100+ innovation leaders from 80+ organizations. We added digital material and videos to introduce people to the Kickbox mindset and guide them through the process. This strengthened the program's self-educational components as people could apply "design thinking" and "lean startup" methods directly to their own projects, learning new agile working methods at the same time. 

Another major part that we took from the original concept is the idea of community. We worked to cultivate the Kickbox community and create an innovation ecosystem. Funnily enough, this is something I was able to benefit from at the very start of my journey. The material is available open-source, so I downloaded a German version that someone had translated. I soon noticed that the German translation mentioned Swiss Francs rather than Euros, so I did some research and got in touch with the translator. It was the first Swiss innovation manager to work with Kickbox. We scheduled a meeting, and I truly benefited from the relationship that developed. I have always strived to carry this forward and share as much as possible with the growing community.

Our goal is to create an ecosystem of organizations from various industries, universities, and service providers that support one another and grow together. We want to create a well-functioning system and brand that has the power to create big things.

So bigger things are ahead! How do you set about determining which ideas are the best? Do many projects make it to the BlueBox phase?

This is something that sets Kickbox apart from other innovation programs. Rather than allowing the CEO or innovation managers to sort out ideas, the market acts as a filter. This is a data-driven method, so the project already has valuable market data and customer feedback behind it by the time decisions have to be made. This way, the idea is validated by real potential customers, not just the organization's highest-paid person. This is a significant shift. But that isn't an easy filter to pass either; we actually see a pretty tough funnel. From around 500 RedBox ideas at Swisscom, 80 will go on to the BlueBox phase, and 20 will be fully implemented as GoldBoxes, whether internally or as a spinout. So once the idea has been validated during the RedBox phase, the next key challenge for a Kickboxer is to find a sponsor to reach the BlueBox phase.

What role does the sponsor play?

Once an intrepreneur has completed the RedBox phase, they have a 30-day fundraising period to find a sponsor. A signed "sponsor agreement" is like the key that opens the door to the BlueBox phase. The role the sponsor actually plays after that differs from company to company and project to project. But they always have an interest in the project's success, so this step teaches the Kickboxer a lot about active stakeholder management and communication. After all, the Kickboxer needs to keep them on board if they want to move onto the implementation phase – GoldBox.

What do Kickboxers gain from the process? What are your favorite success stories?

I think most people come away from the Kickbox process with a feeling of empowerment. The trust that is placed in them and their ideas gives them a real boost. They also learn a lot of new methods that they can apply to their work. They even receive a diploma, which is a valuable addition to their CV. Of course, they get their diploma no matter which stage they reach, but we have had some inspiring projects that have made it to full implementation.

One example of a project implemented internally is "Asport" – a fully automated video production system for mid-tier sporting events in Switzerland. This product is now part of Swisscom's offering and helps local-level sports clubs expand their reach and professionalize their game broadcasting.

An example of an exciting spinout is "Now.art." What began as an idea to sell art online in the red box phase has now developed into a blockchain-based digital art platform running on Swisscom TV. This product allows anyone to display digital art on their TV screens. It just goes to show how transformative the Kickbox process itself can be and the potential it can uncover.

Finally, how has the COVID crisis affected your way of working?

It has always been our aim to optimize the innovation process as we go, and the current crisis has simply pushed us further with that. We had already realized that we needed an effective digital solution three years ago. So, we had begun migrating many of our resources – FAQs, service provider marketplace, project management, automated email coaching – to our self-developed online platform.

By automating the innovation process, we made it scalable and smoothed out the wrinkles. We designed it to be a tool that would enable innovation to thrive, not simply another tool for innovation managers to manage. It also provides a platform for Kickboxers to present their projects, like Kickstarter.com for large corporations. Thanks to these steps, we were in a good position when the crisis came.

Still, we have continued taking steps to support remote innovation during this time, e.g., coaching calls and remote services such as legal or prototyping. We now ship the physical boxes straight to the Kickboxers at home, which has made the process even leaner. In fact, we've seen an increase in ideas during the lockdown. Many people have more time when they're working from home, which seems to spark their creativity and uncover new ideas.

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