The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the nature of the way we work, including how we host workshops and collaborate with each other. In the midst of a pandemic, the Innovation Toolkit partnered with Bridging Innovation to work virtually with sponsors to craft challenge statements for submission to the Small Business Innovation Research (SIBR) process. The workshop trained participants on a tool chain that translated specific gaps into broader challenge statements for startups to propose business ideas to solve said challenges. At the end of the workshop series, the participants left with the beginnings of a publicly-releasable challenge statement to share with nontraditional solution providers through initiatives like the AFWERX/Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) SBIR Program. Like other Bridging Innovation initiatives, SIBR programs build pathways to discover, accelerate, and deliver innovation from non-traditional sources to solve national problems.

Challenge Statements are designed to capture the problem space while not outlining an expected or explicit solution, so that companies understand why the problem exists and why it is important to solve. Here are some tips for writing a good challenge statement:

  • Write in plain English with few acronyms
  • Choose a challenge that is real, has impact, and does not have an adequate solution
  • Explain who the stakeholders are and why this challenge is important
  • Outline the company incentive and how it’s worthwhile for them

What was meant to be a half-day, in-person workshop morphed into a week-long workshop series, 0900-1000 EST daily, introducing the next part of the tool chain. Day 1 introduced the purpose of the workshop and the first two tools – Lotus Blossom and Storm Draining – to get the teams brainstorming about their challenge areas (divergent thinking) and down-selecting to one idea (convergent thinking). Day 2, the group reviewed how the exercises went and moved on to Problem Framing to more specifically define the problem. Day 3 was a review of the refined problem statements before moving onto the TRIZ Prism to generalize the problem. On the final day, the participants shared their challenge statements.

As a follow-on to the workshop, the Bridging and ITK teams are planning to set up officer hours to provide feedback on participants’ challenge statements as the week did not provide enough time to share the statements with sponsors and iterate based on feedback.

Given the evolving COVID-19 circumstances, this workshop was ITK’s first ever fully virtual workshop with participants joining via Skype for Business from their homes. The presenters shared their webcams, which helped build some familiarity, but others had technical difficulties or wanted to save bandwidth. We made good use of the chat window, asking participants to provide a “thumbs up” if the content resonated. Since the ITK tools have yet to be digitized (spoiler: it’s in the works), we provided participants with editable PowerPoint versions as a makeshift way to replace our in-person 11×17 printouts and post-its.

Some ideas for future sessions:

  • Ask participants to share their faces on webcam if possible
  • Give participants more lead time to clear schedules for both the training sessions as well as break out team sessions
  • Move to an every-other-day model
  • Schedule break out sessions with teams and assign facilitators to them
  • Assign team captains to share team’s work for accountability
  • Identify specific participants and roles so facilitators can call people out by name

If you are interested in hosting a challenge statement workshop for your team, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful in your upcoming virtual workshops.