Fast Company

Adobe Idol

In American Idol fashion, product managers unveil new concepts in front of a panel of colleagues they hardly know, looking to gain traction for their ideas. This is Adobe's Champion Showcase, a quarterly event in which the company plans to rev up innovation.

Rick Bess

Adobe Systems

Mark Manca is a product manager at Adobe Systems with seven slides and an idea. He's based in Ottawa, far from Adobe's California headquarters. This morning, thanks to Rick Bess, he'll unwrap his concept for a new product in front of 20 colleagues, most of whom he doesn't know, hoping for the okay to take it a step further.

Cameras. Lights. Sound system. Okay, it's a conference room in San Jose, but still: This is Adobe's Idea Champion Showcase, a quarterly event that's acquiring a reputation within the software company as an American Idol--style opportunity for good ideas to bubble up.

A few minutes after 9 a.m., Bess, an "idea mentor" in Adobe's new business initiatives group, gets things started. The audience will hear six 10-minute presentations, he explains, each followed by 10 minutes of Q&A.

The showcase was Bess's idea, part of a larger effort to rev up Adobe's innovation. A task force in 2004 had identified numerous roadblocks to new ideas. "If you had an idea that needed a new sales channel, a new business model, or new packaging, well, good luck," Bess recalls. "It was hard for ideas to get through the hierarchy." As the company expanded, there was concern that ideas that didn't originate in San Jose wouldn't be heard.

Bess says he's a fan of Edward de Bono's theory of the six "thinking hats." (De Bono's hats, each a different color, represent thinking modes such as creativity, managing, and feelings.) "The default is to put on the black hat, which represents caution, when you hear a new idea," Bess says. He bars Adobe's top executives from the showcase, so they won't hurl rocks at ideas that are still nascent.

It's Manca's turn to present. His idea is a piece of software to help creative professionals at smaller firms better communicate and collaborate with clients. Dan Baum, one of the Adobe entrepreneurs-in-residence who's "judging" the showcase, seems unsold. "It's not clear to me that the market opportunity is that large," he says.

And yet, Manca's idea gets traction. A manager who integrates new Adobe products with its flagship Creative Suite saw it posted on an employee brainstorming site, and asked Bess how his group might be able to help. On his next trip to San Jose, Manca planned to meet with the manager. He's also getting help from Adobe's internal market-research group. In a recent email, he remarked, with entrepreneurial impatience, that the process was moving "more slowly than I would like." But the important thing, for Adobe, is that it's moving at all.

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