SCENARIO: It’s Friday morning. You’re an analyst and just received an urgent request for an analysis due Monday. You are 99% sure a colleague has done this same analysis before, but you have no idea where it was stored. Your options are 1) spend all weekend searching for that old analysis and updating it, or 2) start from scratch and finish a new version by the end of today. Which option do you choose? Is it more efficient to reinvent the wheel? Or to spend the time looking for something which may not be found – or may not even exist?
It often feels like we are stuck choosing the lesser of two evils when faced with a decision like this. Option 1 is risky – what if you don’t end up finding what you need, and you wasted all that time searching? Option 2 can be frustrating – you are pretty sure someone else has done the work already, but you simply don’t have time to figure out how to leverage it.
Team Toolkit recently delivered a workshop to help a group of intelligence analyst to explore solutions to that scenario. We began with a tool called the “Problem Framing Canvas”, which aims to help build a consensus about a problem statement and make sure the team is solving the right problem to begin with. After some discussion, the group agreed that “analysis takes too long” was a pretty good description of the problem. It’s short, clear, and does not dictate a specific solution.
It can be tempting to skip the “defining the problem” phase and move right into “solving the problem,” but building a consensus about the problem is always a worthwhile exercise. The Problem Framing Canvas helped the group identify other groups who also experience this problem (spoiler: MANY other teams) and who has figured out how to solve this problem (not many have – it’s a hard problem!).
After framing the problem, we moved to a second tool, Journey Mapping. A Journey Map is a visual tool that focuses on a user’s experience. It identifies phases, steps, actions, opportunities, and pain points in the analysis process, starting with the request for a product and ending with delivering the product. The process of developing such a map is often just as valuable for the team as the product itself.
Because the participants were geographically dispersed across three different locations, we paused our Skype call to allow each location to sketch out the journey of a typical analyst on the whiteboard, including steps that are typically challenging to accomplish. We then regrouped to share ideas and consolidate everyone’s work into one giant journey map.
The Journey Map highlighted points within the process that contribute to the problem and make analysis take so long. It also helped the team identify opportunities to introduce new processes, practices, and technologies that could speed things up. Participants left the workshop with a visual map of their process and a consolidated list of requirements for a new platform solution they could build, to help analysis go faster.
Hat Tip to Andrea & Allison for co-authoring this story
As part of our ongoing effort to democratize innovation across the company, Team Toolkit has picked up a couple of new members and branched out to new locations. One of our new members is Melanie Shere, based in MITRE’s McLean office. I sat down with Melanie to learn a little more about her and formally introduce her to the community!
Jen: Welcome to Team Toolkit, Melanie! Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Melanie: I’m a Human Factors Engineer, in the User Experience, Visualization and Decision Support Department of the Software Engineering Tech Center. I focus primarily on human behavior, usability/accessibility and how interpersonal relationships are affected by different cultural factors and environmental influencers. Basically, I focus on why people make certain decisions and how we can incorporate different experiences more holistically, which is why design thinking is so appealing to me.
I began my career at MITRE Quantico 6 years ago and made my way to the McLean campus about 4 years ago. I have enjoyed furthering my education, as well as seeing the breadth of opportunity MITRE has to offer from different community and sponsor perspectives.
J: How did you first get involved with Innovation Toolkit?
M: I was invited to join through my Technical Director and Group Lead, who know that I enjoy interacting with others to help solve problems- whether that be complicated, large scale initiatives, or small short-term wins. They felt my personality and genuine knowledge would lend itself well to ITK’s mission. I also have a background in teaching, which I think makes me stronger in this space as well.
J: What’s your favorite part of ITK?
M: I like hearing about all the problems and seeing all the personalities in the room and trying to understand why people feel the way they feel. Usually, our ITK sessions involve people who are working on the same project, so they already know each other and have established dynamics. This is where ITK brings a cool perspective because we’re not emotionally invested as deeply “in the relationship” with the topic and can give advice objectively. We see a very high level snippet of the problem space, so we’re an unbiased opinion and just want to see them succeed; or take some strong steps forward to establishing what their overarching goals should/could be, which can include a plan forward on how to tackle them.
I also like working with challenging problems and people.
J: What do you like about working with challenging types of personalities?
M: My entire basis in education has been analyzing and understanding the way people think. When I’m facilitating an ITK session, I strongly believe in seeing diverse perspectives (regardless of whether I agree with them or not). When I hear other people’s thoughts on a problem or idea, it also helps me to re-evaluate my own line of thinking, making me a stronger, more well-rounded person, and better equipped to deal with other persons and problem spaces in the future. Even if I only take a small piece of a conversation away with me, and that causes me to change just a small subset of my thinking- that to me, has made me better. This is part of the type of service I hope others receive from ITK and what we provide. These diverse perspectives are important because they create a more well-rounded discussion, and in the end, a more complete answer to a tough challenge. The point of ITK is providing a more well-rounded, inclusive solution to our peers, and this type of embracement of diversity in thought is necessary for that.
J: What helps when working with these challenging personalities? Do you have an example?
M: One example was when I was facilitating an ITK session where the leader changed the goal of the session multiple times, which meant that I’d have to re-plan the ITK session multiple times because the different goals required different types of ITK tools. This made it “difficult” because this session required at least double the prep work of a regular session since I had to rework it- which also led me to be more nervous of whether I had suggested the right solution for the final work session.
I went into the session anxious, hoping that we would get the results from it that would provide some tangible actions for the group. What made a difference was continuing to have touchpoint meetings before the actual session, where we walked through the tools and expected flow. We agreed that the lead would help cover subject matter expertise in that vocation, and I would provide design thinking examples and explanations to the group, working together to make sure we were providing clear, and strong direction for the expectation of the session.
It was important to make sure we were on the same page before stepping in the room, and we worked together very well to deliver strong results from the ITK sessions we held- resulting in not only tangible, actionable outcomes, but strong conversation artifacts as well.
J: What is the most challenging part of working with people and ITK?
M: From an internal perspective, Bedford and McLean are different animals – we have different sponsors, different environments, and a different culture. ITK began in Bedford and has more presence there, whereas ITK is still gaining traction in McLean. Especially since I was the only McLean member until now, I’ve been willing to put in more time and effort because we’re still gaining ground here, and I see so much value in what ITK has to offer, so I am always looking for more opportunities to grow our work.
From an external perspective, the most challenging part is gaining sponsor buy-in early in the process. Internally, a lot of people are familiar with what ITK is. But as we work more with external sponsors, ITK and the design thinking process is new to them and they need more guidance on how we can help them, and that we can assist no matter where they are with their processes. Innovative thinking is beneficial no matter where you are in a project lifecycle and is not limited to a topic you are working on but can encompass things you may be curious about as well.
J: How would you describe your style of innovation?
M: No limits. Be creative. I look at the personalities in the room and try to play to their strengths and help them recognize and strengthen other people’s offerings to the conversation in the room as well. For example, when facilitating, I’ll mix a group of personalities and backgrounds to make sure the playing field is even, and they are gaining and understanding perspectives and concerns of others. The most holistic perspectives produce the most educated solutions.
J: Everyone has a favorite tool. Name yours and why?
M: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite tool per se… One of my favorite things to do with the tools is occasionally creating hybrid tools when we don’t already have a tool that fits the group’s needs. I like to research for other solutions and marry it with what tools we already have. ITK isn’t one size fits all, and I think customizing tools shows that I truly understand how those tools should be used [in the ITK session] and that I really understand the group’s problem space.
Customizing demonstrates this, and that we are truly providing them with a unique service. Sometimes, some groups just need a tool [and they can use it as-is], which is also just as effective depending on their problem space. But I like when I get the opportunity to give them a custom experience. And they definitely appreciate it.
J: What role does culture play in adoption of ITK methods?
M: In my experience so far and from what I’ve seen in McLean, the McLean culture is very business-process driven. People definitely expect tangible, actionable results after an ITK session and have to see the practical application of what we did to their overall mission. Sometimes though, just using the service to create a safe environment for difficult pivot project conversations or checking the pulse on an aspect you aren’t quite sure is still verging on goodness of work- is something I would love to see us do more of here.
J: What do you do when you aren’t working on ITK?
M: I’m currently working on a few internal projects and I also support a couple DoD efforts, and an IRS project.
Outside of work, I spend a lot of time with my husband and family, whether it’s going out to dinner, traveling, going out to a baseball game, or a show. I also enjoy baking, gardening, painting and my two cats, Maggie and Waffles. I spend a lot of time between Virginia and my family in Vermont as well. I also over the past 6-7 years have been very involved in historic preservation work, teach ethnographic perspectives in history education and have led a committee of 40 women, assisting in recruiting and training volunteers for 5 different historic properties.
J: If someone was interested in using the Innovation Toolkit, how would you suggest they get started?
M: First, figure out how they want to use ITK. If you don’t have anything particular in mind, (or if you do) check out the ITK website, check out some of the tool options, and see if any speak to them.
Second, I’d suggest setting up a meeting with someone on Team Toolkit (or reaching out to us via email) to learn more about how we can help and figure out what they need in their situation, or even if they just want to know more in general.
J: Any closing thoughts or do you have a favorite quote to share?
M: “Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.” – Fred Rogers
Blackout poem by Austin Kleon (austinkleon.com/)
The first time you swing a hammer, you’re going to bend some nails and probably hit your thumb once or twice. Even though a hammer is an exquisitely simple tool, getting good at using a hammer requires practice (and if you’ve ever seen a master carpenter use a hammer, it’s a thing of beauty – google “Larry Haun human nail gun” if you want to explore that particular rabbit trail).
The same is true with the techniques and methods in the Innovation Toolkit. Each one is delightfully low-tech and deliberately simple… but don’t be surprised if the first time you use one, it’s harder than it looks.
I encountered this situation first-hand when I introduced the Lotus Blossom to some high school interns. This is probably the simplest tool in the whole kit, and although they understood the application right away, they struggled mightily to figure out how to use it. I let them wrestle and flail for a while, exploring and experimenting with how to use the Lotus Blossom on their project. Then I showed them how I would have done it – in less than five minutes, we had a clear, useful artifact they could use for the rest of the project.
The point is, when it comes to tools, mastery takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself. Don’t get discouraged if you bend some metaphorical nails. Find a coach who can help guide you through the process. And most of all, don’t give up.