As part of our ongoing effort to democratize innovation across the company, Team Toolkit has picked up a couple of new members since we started. One of them is Jen Choi, a Senior Multi-disciplinary Systems Engineer at MITRE. Rachel sat down with Jen recently to learn a little more about her and formally introduce her to the community!

Rachel: Welcome to Team Toolkit, Jen! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Jen: Hi Rachel! I’m stoked to be here with you and Team Toolkit. I joined MITRE last June and have had a pretty interesting path before arriving here… I have close to a decade of experience in engineering, but I also spent a few years as an entrepreneur, an executive coach, and a surfer: I had my own coaching business, and I also worked with a non-profit, Surfrider Spirit Sessions, where we “catch waves and change lives” by teaching at-risk youth how to surf and how to change their lives using lessons drawn from the ocean. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled the world for a year, and I also used to live and work abroad in the Netherlands. Before moving to Massachusetts, I was living in Hawai’i and began learning how to navigate using the stars and I’m currently a voyager with the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

R: How did you first get involved with Innovation Toolkit?

J: I worked with Dan on a sponsor project and the ITK team was brought on to support a workshop in the Pentagon. The team banded together to build the problem framing canvas and the Opportunity Capture canvas in a weekend. I had never heard the word ‘charter’ or ‘canvas’ before in this context and seeing the rapid tool-building was really cool – one person started it and then others contributed their ideas.

R: What’s your favorite part of being on Team Toolkit?

J: I love the energy of possibility – the openness, creativity, and willingness to think different and be different. And, that it’s encouraged and supported. In an engineering company, I think remembering the human aspects of design, rather than only thinking of systems, can help lead to innovation. Having a collection of these tools that are available to everyone and applying them in traditionally systems-oriented environments (military especially) feels really creative.

I like seeing the confidence boost when people realize they have something valuable to contribute. Using these tools becomes inclusive because everyone is invited to participate. You never know what cool idea is going to come from whomever.

Also, I like introducing people to a new idea and seeing how their perspectives and mindsets shift. That, to me, is really exciting; that’s the most powerful thing we can give to an individual. I’m all about the power of choice. Mindset is a big part of what Toolkit is about, both to help you shift your mindset and to help you articulate that.

R: Do you have an example of that?

J: When we used the problem framing tool with one of my sponsors who is very traditional, reserved, and likes to plan ahead, they were surprised by how much they could get done in an hour. They were beginning in a totally new domain and didn’t know where to start. We uncovered not just one problem, but many problems, and so

mething “fuzzy” started to clarify. They continue to be appreciative and champion this type of problem solving; they want to bring this to their leadership and other organizations!

R: What is the most challenging part of working with people and ITK?

J: Some people have a natural aversion or resistance to the tools. I’m starting to build my barometer of when a group is “ready” for toolkit or not. That can only be done by trial and error, which makes it the challenging part. Sometimes it will be a “hard no” and always be a no. Some are a “not yet” and you have to take that temperature pulse. When there’s trial and error, there will inevitably be errors. You need to figure out what went wrong…and be willing to try again.

On a more logistical note, the tools are the best when you have diversity of people in the room. Being able to get on people’s calendars can be a challenge. People are busy and have competing priorities, so it can be tough to even find time to use the tools.

R: Tell me about some of the people you’ve met while working in ITK.

J: Without Toolkit, I never would have gone into the Pentagon to facilitate a lot of senior leadership in the government! Using ITK was really cool because unlike traditional engagements where one is typically looking for a decision or guidance, the roles were reversed and we were guiding the senior leaders by drawing out their individual inputs and helping piece these  together as a group.

R: How would you describe your style of innovation?

J: I encourage people to see the bigger picture and set goals based on their vision. When I was coaching, I helped people get unstuck and get clear on what they’re really trying to do. That’s how I use Toolkit now, which is probably why I like using the Problem Framing canvas.

R: What role does culture play in adoption of ITK methods?

J: Culture is huge. It’s great if you can find one person who is open, buys in, or who can be an ally/champion for the tools. We need to understand the culture of an organization or group to figure out who is receptive to ITK methods.

Internally on Team Toolkit, our culture is very diverse, which I think truly helps us create better tools and products. We represent different MITRE locations, remote vs. in-person, different types of engineering, and work with different sponsors.

R: Everyone has a favorite tool. Name yours and why?

J: The problem framing canvas is definitely my favorite; I use it so often. It’s so helpful for getting people on the same page about the problem we’re trying to solve. I reference the double diamond ALL the time! I also use the Lotus Blossom and Trimming a lot. Oftentimes, Lotus Blossom is helpful for getting ideas out. When I feel stuck, seeing the colors of the lotus blossom and putting thoughts on paper helps me to organize my thoughts. I truly do think I like it because it’s colorful. J

R: What do you do when you aren’t working on ITK?

J: I was living in Hawai’i right before joining MITRE, so I’m always on the lookout for good surf (even in freezing temperatures!). I’ve also continued my volunteer work with the Polynesian Voyaging Society and since now I’m on the mainland, I primarily focus on sharing about my experiences and lessons from voyaging and wayfinding. I’m super passionate about the ocean and navigating using the stars, so it was really cool to speak at this year’s MITRE’s TEDx event. When I’m going through life, I’m always thinking, “How can I relate this to the ocean or another experience?”

R: Do you see any connection between voyaging and ITK?

J: When you’re on a voyage and out in the ocean, all you have is your crew, the canoe, and whatever you’ve brought with you. You have to be resourceful and use what you have. As crew, we recognize that we all have different strengths, and we work together to help each other. We think ahead to make things easier for each other. When conditions become dangerous, it’s all hands on deck and everyone is helping, no matter who you are. There’s such strong mutual respect and aloha for each other; we really come together as a wa’a ohana (voyaging family).

This resonates with ITK too. Team Toolkit is a solid group of individuals that all contribute and have unique strengths. When a major task comes along, we all rally together to meet deadlines. I feel like we all have each other’s back, and similar to voyaging, I feel the tightness of this crew.

In voyaging, we’re going out to explore the oceans and faraway lands. With ITK, we’re going out to explore different hard problems and help people find solutions. In both groups, we take what we know and go beyond our “island” to spread this knowledge with others.

R: If someone was interested in using the Innovation Toolkit, how would you suggest they get started?

J: Reach out to Team Toolkit! It’s more fun to talk to a real person, and having someone really listen and being an outside listener can really help with giving perspective. We can suggest tools or toolchains that might help in your unique situation. If that’s not possible, then I would suggest looking at the categories of tools to help you identify where in the double diamond you are. Then, try using the tools on your own. See if it helps, and then try using the tools with your team. Team Toolkit can also help facilitate your session or share tips on how to effectively use the tools for the first time with your team.

R: Do you have a favorite quote to share?

J: The Maya Angelou quote, “If you don’t like it, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” To me, this quote reminds me of the power of choice: Things in our environment are out of our control, but you can always choose how you respond. Your attitude is completely up to you. This power of choice is accessible to everyone, like the Toolkit!

ITK truly is for everyone. ITK methods are different from traditional analytical or engineering approaches, and Toolkit can disrupt people’s perceptions of themselves: That yes, they are innovative, and that yes, they are the right user for these tools. I’ve struggled with this self-perception disruption, too! It took me a long time to recognize that I’m creative. ITK really is for everyone, and anyone can use it.

Problem Framing 101

Last week. Rachel’s blog post looked at the importance of asking Why. This week we’ll take a closer look at the Problem Framing Canvas she mentioned. It’s designed to be used with a team to establish a clear consensus about what problem you’re trying to solve.

When I’m leading one of these sessions, I like to give everyone a copy of the canvas on 11×17 paper, so there’s plenty of room to write. I start by setting a timer for 4 minutes and inviting everyone to spend a little quiet writing time, mostly focused on the first box on the upper left of the canvas (the “What’s the problem?” box).

Then we use the questions on the canvas to guide the discussion (usually 60-90 minutes) and explore different facets of the problem.

In the last 10-15 minutes, we focus on the big box at the bottom (“No, really, what’s the actual problem?”) to document the team’s shared understanding of the problem. The transformation from our initial problem statement to the final problem statement is usually quite striking.

Get your copy of the Problem Framing Canvas (and instructions on how to use it) on the Problem Framing page.

Asking Why

When we’re given a new assignment at work, the first questions we often ask are:

  • What needs to be done?
  • How are we going to do it?
  • When is it due?
  • Who is it for?

These are each important questions that should not be missed, but there’s another question that we should make a point to ask and answer as soon as possible: “Why?” This deceptively simple question can come in many forms, such as:

  • Why are we doing this project?
  • Why is it important?
  • Why am I the right person for the task?

Some might be apprehensive to ask their leader “Why?” for fear of being met with, “Because I said so!” It’s important to build a culture where the Why question is encouraged rather than dismissed. We assure you that answering the “why” of a project is never wasted time. Defining the why prevents us from wasting time going down the wrong path, missing opportunities, or focusing on the wrong aspects of a project.

A popular technique for getting to the true root of it all is “5 Why’s.” Because sometimes asking why once is not enough. Maybe the first one will get you to, “Because we want to make the process faster.” Why does the process need to go faster? Because our employees don’t have enough time to innovate. Why don’t they have enough time? As the question often enough and you just might arrive at a powerful, unexpected insight.

Understanding the purpose of a project will lead us to the root of the problem we’re trying to solve. Not sure what problem your project is trying to solve? Check out ITK’s Problem Framing tool. Use it alone or with your team. Building consensus around the mad-lib-like problem across the bottom will provide your group with a measure of success and a goal to work towards, and make sure you all know why you’re doing what you’re doing.



Using an innovation toolkit can be difficult in a classified environment. There may be restrictions on what information can be shared, where it can be stored, and who it can be communicated with. What do you do with the notes? What if someone says something they aren’t supposed to say? Is there the right level of system access to present the appropriate slides? Are creativity and innovation inherent aspects of a culture in a classified, secure workspace?

These and other questions may be asked when considering innovating in a classified environment. The short answer is: Yes! You can certainly innovate in such an environment. It may require some creativity and flexibility to pull it off.

Let’s make up a scenario: You feel that your team isn’t considering all the alternatives for a given decision. You are aware of some ideation activities and wonder if you could facilitate an innovation activity with your team. You start thinking about the secure environment you work in. Your mind begins to fill with doubt as you ask yourself about all the hurdles you’ll have to jump over to pull this off. Questions like: Who would I invite? What level of classification would the discussion be held at? What if our notes can be compiled into an even higher classification level that the room isn’t accredited for (let alone the clearance levels of the attendees)? Is there a computer in that room with access to the network required to present certain slides? Are cameras allowed? Do I know the new security classification guide (SCG) well enough to facilitate the discussion? What will I do with all of those sticky notes and poster boards when the meeting is over? Do I need to find an official courier to get the notes to a different facility?

This may be a scenario you can relate with. It’s not easy to answer all of these questions, especially when these activities may be new to your organization. Here are a few tips for pulling this type of exercise off:

Don’t overthink it

It’s easy to overcomplicate an idea to the point of never seeing it through. If this applies to you; simplify. Sometimes, getting people in a room where they feel safe to talk about potentially unpopular ideas is half the battle. There is a first for everything and if people feel heard then the power of diverse thinking can run its course.

Set clear goals

It may require some effort to get management on board (or not, depending on the culture of your organization). An innovation workshop could pull important people from their important tasks. This is why you need to clearly communicate the goals of your meeting/workshop. This will also help you to organize and facilitate the event, as you will have a constant reminder of what you are actually trying to accomplish.

Communicate early, communicate often

In general, your leaders may not appreciate being surprised about an event they didn’t know about (and that cost them precious resources). If you think this may apply to you, communicate your idea early on. It might be wise to start with an immediate supervisor, as they may have a working knowledge of available resources, etc. Finding a champion amongst your team can also help “sell” the idea. Provide examples of similar organizations performing similar activities. You could even tie your activity into an industry-accepted activity that your organization regularly employs.

Plan for success

If you are concerned that your discussion/notes may result in classified information, plan for it. Reserve a space that can handle the highest classification level you think the conversation and/or notes may go to. Only invite people that have that access. Coordinate with your local security representative to make sure the room is ready, the people are cleared, and that you have a plan for the written material that may leave the meeting and need to be stored. If possible, invite someone strongly familiar with the SCG to give a short SCG overview. In lieu of an expert, the SCG itself should be on-hand for reference. If anything will be related to Intelligence, invite your local Intelligence representative to not only give a short presentation (e.g. a threat briefing) at the beginning of the workshop, but to participate as well.

Use appropriate tools

You may feel the need to provide high fidelity presentation, facilitation and/or note-taking material. While this can certainly be helpful (slides, markers, posters, toys, etc.), don’t let it bog you down to the point of not doing the activity at all. Getting authorization to run certain software may be a bridge too far. In addition to having a licensed copy of the software purchased and ready, there is also a need to have an authority to load and operate the software. In short, in addition to pen & paper, plan on only having the office automation applications available in the facility. If you can get some sticky notes, paper, and a handful of colored sharpies, call it a win.

Expand the buy-in

You don’t want to do this in a vacuum. Ask people how they would like to contribute. Bring in some diversity of thought. Allow people to do what they are the best at. This creates more buy-in while also having a second set of eyes review any policies or procedures you aren’t sure about.

Is it always easy to pull this off? Probably not. Still, as you try and show the fruits of your efforts, your organization could recognize the positive change and embrace similar techniques going forward.