Red Boxes, Fail-Con, and Imaginary Helmets: Lessons from Innovation Labs

Every head a lightbulb

The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones. – John Maynard Keynes

User experience architects are constantly being asked to, “think outside the box” in an effort of create revolutionary ideas for their companies. Some companies have even created separate innovation labs to this end. These lab groups are encouraged to be nimble, fail quickly, and maintain a startup mentality.  This article explores some of the concepts discussed in The Commonwealth Club of California’s broadcast, R&D, Innovation Labs, and Channeling Your Inner Startup. Will Young, Director, Zappos Labs, Brian Luerssen, GM, OKCupid Labs, and Mark Randall, Chief Strategist and VP of Creativity, Adobe, discussed the place and importance of innovation labs within large companies.

What is an Innovation Lab and Why Would a Company Want One?
What made a company become large and successful at serving its customers can eventually make it unsuccessful at being innovative. The goal of an innovation lab is to build brand new businesses and experiences – not just product extensions – to keep companies from stagnating.

Will Young commented that innovation labs aren’t about direct revenue. If that were the case, Zappos’ innovation lab would be sitting around every day creating different ways to issue coupons. The point of an innovation lab is to try to keep larger companies nimble. It will work if you’re doing it right but it won’t always work. Failure is a fact of life. Successful labs have to balance their success and failure rates.

Mark Randall was asked how the people at Adobe’s lab came up with new ideas. He suggested thinking about the perfect experience, and used as an example, an imaginary helmet. You can put this helmet on and imagine a drawing. As you imagine your drawing, it appears on the screen in front of you. Do we have the technology to do this today? No. But ask yourself, “How close can we get?” This kind of thinking drives Adobe.

The Red Box
Mark Randall spoke about Adobe’s Red Box KickStart program.

Anyone in the company who would like to test out an idea is given a Red Box. The Red Box contains everything a person would need to launch a new idea and test it. Recipients don’t have to get permission or sign-off to receive a Red Box – Adobe finds that too much paperwork kills innovation – they just have to have an idea.

Each box contains a credit card with a pre-paid $1,000.00 limit and six levels that must be completed. There are instructions about how to run through the levels, and at the end of each level there is a specific action to take and a task to complete. When the idea has made it through all six levels and, “beats the Red Box,” the owner gets the, “Blue Box.” The Blue Box has six more levels, and upon completion is given executive exposure. Employees from administration assistants to engineers have been given Red Boxes. Since their inception, there have been 900 Red Boxes issued, and 15 Blue Boxes.

Randall said that yes, in the beginning, their financial team looked at them in terror when they suggested giving recipients the pre-paid card, but the idea was to alleviate the need to turn in credit card receipts and waste time completing paperwork. And they found that the Red Box recipients were even more careful with the company’s money, and in some cases added their own money to continue funding their project.

While proposing the concept of the Red Box, Adobe leadership suggested that the boxes should only be given to the company’s top performers. Randall suggested an innovation contest between leadership and the company’s top performers, and Randall and the company’s lowest performers. Randall insisted that he would win. He said that it only took one person, someone who is frustrated with their current project but has something they have a passion for or are excited about. Ideas come from people at the extremes and happen at an intersection of a moment in their life, when the company need, the people around them, and their passion, create a perfect storm.

How do you know you’ve failed? The panelists agreed that the hardest part is figuring out if you’ve failed or if you just haven’t tried hard enough – if the idea was a good one but failed because of poor execution. But failure is both important and inevitable if you’re thinking outside the box. Breathtakingly spectacular ideas are rare. An innovation team will likely never hit a home run its first time out. The labs exist to try crazy things that will probably fail, and learn lessons from those failures. Leadership needs to understand that and not disband the lab at the first string of failures.

The panelists spoke about the difficulty of motivating innovation team members after they had experienced so many failures. The team members often became depressed, despondent, or afraid they might be fired. Mark Randall suggested having a yearly Fail-Con to celebrate the company failures, and the lessons those failures produced. He proposed the idea of making a tiny memorial plaque for each failed project, and that these plaques could be scattered around the Adobe’s campus lawn as a reminder to employees that the people who thought of these ideas are still here and still successful. He wished for an enormous graveyard of lessons learned.

Innovation at Sears
I do not think Sears will be starting a separate innovation lab any time soon, but in the meantime, how can we apply some of these concepts to our own work groups? What might a Sears red box contain? What might our Fail-Con look like? And how close can we get to a Kim Kardashian imaginary helmet?

An audio recording of this event can be found at:



2 Responses to “Red Boxes, Fail-Con, and Imaginary Helmets: Lessons from Innovation Labs”

  1. Karol Czyrka →
    March 31, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    I think teams that are dedicated to innovation get out of touch. And innovation does come from all over. I think one relatively easy thing we can try is to created a Hackathon Series just like we have Brown Bag Lunch series. Question is how do we incent? Or, is just getting your idea picked up incentive enough?

    • Mikel
      April 9, 2017 at 7:13 pm #

      Ah, i see. Well th’ats not too tricky at all!”