ITK Interview: Stephanie Medicke

ITK Interview: Stephanie Medicke

Stephanie Medicke is a Southern California transplant with an immense capacity to inspire and motivate others. Her fun outgoing nature draws people in, and her sense of humor and kindness wins them over. She is a driven leader who asks important probing questions and always encourages others to consider all possible avenues, viewpoints, and risks. She breaks down barriers and challenges assumptions while helping people find common ground. Stephanie is a positive force on Team Toolkit and in this interview we explore how she got here and shine a light on her unique perspective.

In addition to being an innovation catalyst on Team Toolkit, Stephanie is a Mechanical Engineer and Group Leader at MITRE. She is the direct supervisor of a team of engineers supporting a myriad of airborne system integration projects. She works to grow and develop her employees to reach their potential and helps develop and execute department strategy. In her technical work, Stephanie manages multiple tasks within a project, strategically organizing the work such that it amplifies the impact to the sponsors, while simultaneously meeting tactical and strategic needs for the enterprise.

What did your educational journey and career path look like?

It’s interesting to talk about career path, because I feel like I am still at the beginning of mine. In high school, I had every intention to go into psychology. I was not exactly sure what that meant, but I had a passion for learning how our brains work. I honestly didn’t think I was smart enough to become an engineer. After applying for college, I had the opportunity to visit my cousin’s mechanical engineering lab. I was accepted as a psychology major, but after that visit I knew that I wanted to change my major.

So even before I started the semester, I emailed the University of New Hampshire to see how I could transfer into the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. I figured that if I hated engineering I could always transfer out and I could continue taking psychology courses even if I switched majors, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take engineering classes if I transferred out of the school of engineering.

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) played a huge role in me staying in engineering. I was very active in the organization on campus and eventually became the president of SWE. When I was looking for internships, I thought I was going to go into the biomedical field, but I liked the variety that MITRE had to offer. So, I started my career at MITRE as an intern.

Based on my interest in psychology and the fact that I like working with people and teams, I knew that I would like to be a people manager. I wanted to get more involved with the people side and the business side of work, so while working at MITRE, I got a Masters of Science in Engineering Management at Tufts University Gordon Institute. I like my job because I can focus on the bigger picture, I help people get where they want to go and help the sponsors solve their problems. Airplanes fascinate me, but they don’t necessarily excite me. I love leading teams, which is something that I’ve done since the beginning of my career.

How did you get involved with ITK?

It’s a bit blurry now. I remember a few key moments like working with a startup, meeting team members, and doing the initial survey and market research of innovation tools, but I don’t remember the very beginning in much detail. What I do remember is that it was exciting in a different way than it is now.

There was a time when I was struggling to decide if I wanted to stay at MITRE. ITK satisfied my aspiration to get involved in the business side of things. I was looking for the next side project. I was so fortunate to find other people who were willing to explore intrapreneurship on their own time. I enjoyed learning from other people, learning human centered engineering and meeting new people. It was fun! I liked going out to a café with the team and talking things out. It felt like we were going to make a difference and that we were learning and growing. ITK felt dynamic and exciting when projects felt stale. It felt good to work with other excited and engaged individuals who are interested in the same things.

What first drew your interest; what keeps you involved?

I think what drew my interest at the beginning was learning more about design thinking and human centered design and getting to expand my network. What keeps me, is all of you. The friendships that we created are what keeps me involved, even more than the content and activities themselves. The impact that we are having keeps me here. The friendships are first and impact is a close second. Facilitating workshops is good, but it’s not nearly as fun as hanging out and working with the team. We not only have fun in happy hours and outside of work, but actually have a lot of fun doing the work.

How does ITK and the tools relate to your engineering work?

I’m somewhat of a facilitator on one of my projects and as a supervisor. I’m not necessarily always the one contributing technical work, but I’m helping other team members think differently about their work and improve it. I help them figure out if they are solving the right problem and help them come up with more ideas. I push the team to ensure that have explored the problem space enough and that they don’t just go with their first solution. I don’t have them fill out a canvas every day, but I do make sure that I ask the questions that are embedded in the tools. I definitely use the mindset that is embedded in the tools.

How would you characterize the impact of ITK?

First and foremost, it is about breaking down mental models and helping people think differently. These canvases are not particularly earth shattering. It’s the thought behind them and the conversations that people have while using them that are most important. People don’t always have these conversations on their own, and the tools help people think differently and provide structure, but it’s not special.

And there is a reason that it’s free to use. These are resources that should be shared and accessible by all, but we find that people are not asking these types of questions and are not having these critical conversations naturally.

One of my biggest goals on any project is having people communicate more and I think these tools help with that. We are helping people, who are not on the same page, communicate more effectively, or help them uncover hidden assumptions. Second, it’s important because we and our sponsors are so task-saturated and the problems we have are so complex. Sometimes when we get busy, we forget why we are here, what’s the purpose, and what’s the point. The tools provide the structure and the outlet to have important conversations to make sure your team is solving the right problem for the user.


Introducing Innovation: When to keep going and when to quit?

Introducing Innovation: When to keep going and when to quit?

Q: Team Toolkit, I really want to bring innovation into my organization but I have NO co-conspirators and my organization is the opposite of flat, it’s practically a dictatorship! My attempts at introducing innovation have been failing and I’m really demoralized; when do I know it’s time to just give up and quit?

A: Oy, we feel your pain anonymous audience member and are sending you lots of extra aloha. This is a very difficult position to be in, and unfortunately, we’ve all been there too at various points in our careers.

One constructive way to move forward in this type of scenario is to find an abstract situation where our struggle is no longer at the center of the story. This creates space for different perspectives, and thus new insights, that can inspire the next right action.

While each situation is unique, here’s an analogy that may help you identify the next right move…

– – –

Analogy time: Let’s become an acorn

Photo of an outstretched hand with an acorn

Photo credit: Caleb Lucas

Acorns are amazing. When properly planted, this tiny acorn can grow into a massive oak tree, with huge branches overhead and deep roots down below. This oak tree could live not just for hundreds, but tens of thousands, of years!

An acorn has so much potential, but in order for it to take root and thrive, there is a very critical set of requirements: The acorn must be planted in soil, watered, and receive sunlight.

Let’s imagine three scenarios of how this acorn could be planted:

    1. Nature. A squirrel finds the acorn during the fall, buries it deep in the ground, then has a squirrel moment and forgets where it is. This leaves the acorn to hibernate during the winter, and it begins naturally sprouting during spring alongside other new plants.
    1. Nursery. A nursery gardener finds the acorn during the fall, plants it into a large pot, then carefully waters and grows it into a small tree in their nursery’s greenhouse. This potted tree is then sold by the nursery, where it’s delivered to a different state and planted into a new landscape.
    1. Transplant. A home gardener finds the acorn during the fall, plants it into a large pot, then places it in the dark corner of their garage and forgets about it over winter. The potted acorn remains in the dark garage during the spring and summer.

Using these three scenarios, it’s clear that our acorn has the best chance of becoming a full oak tree in Scenario 1 and 2. Scenario 2 may be more risky since the small tree may not take root after being planted in the new landscape. However, we know that our acorns are set up for success in both scenarios because they at least received the dirt, water, and sunlight that they need to transform into a tree.

Unfortunately in Scenario 3, our acorn was not set up for success and did not receive 2 of the 3 critical requirements for transformation. Without water and sunlight, no matter how good the dirt is, this acorn will never become an oak tree.

Back to reality: Why did we become acorns and how does that help me?

This acorn represents your fresh ideas and innovative approaches that you are trying to introduce into your organization. There is no doubt that there is lots of potential here, but as we saw in the analogy, the environment determined the future of this acorn – whether it would receive what it critically needed to transform: dirt, water, and sunlight.

Similarly, your organizational environment will determine whether your fresh ideas and innovative approaches will receive what it critically needs to flourish: Fellow teammates and some initial funding or go-ahead. You’ve done all that you can do as an individual, and now it’s time to consider your organizational environment:

Is your organizational environment like Scenario 1 where you have the right conditions, but need to wait for the right time? Are your ideas hibernating during a winter period, and a future leader or champion will create the conditions of spring?

    • If yes, then patience and a mindset shift could be a great next move. Instead of thinking “Innovation is never going to happen here!”, try thinking “I’m waiting for a better time to introduce innovation.”
    • Check out our other ITK blog post on the importance of attitude for more tips!

Or is your organizational environment like Scenario 2 where the conditions for your ideas to truly thrive and take root may exist elsewhere? Is your organization not the “final” place for where your ideas can truly take off?

Or is your organizational environment like Scenario 3 where no matter what you do, you’re not going to get those critical elements for success? Is your organizational structure inherently inhibiting innovation?

    • If yes, then it may be time to consider an alternative path… and that will definitely require much more than one blog post.
    • In this case, reaching out to your trusted mentors for realistic advice unique to your scenario could be a great next move.

– – –

Hopefully this acorn analogy helped you identify the next right action for your situation, and for those who have also experienced this, leave us a comment below for other tips or actions that have helped you!

Introducing the Mission / Vision Canvas

Introducing the Mission / Vision Canvas

The newest tool in our Innovation Toolkit is the Mission & Vision Statement Canvas. This is a great tool to use when forming a new organization, or any time you need to clarify a group’s activities and purpose.

To get started, gather your team and spend a few minutes discussing the objective of the session and the difference between a Mission Statement and a Vision Statement. These terms are often used without being defined, so a brief explanation up front can help get everyone on the same page and reduce confusion. We suggest that a good VISION statement describes future conditions in aspirational terms. In contrast, a good MISSION statement describes present activities in concrete terms.

One of our favorite examples comes from the nonprofit group Feeding America. Their vision is “A Hunger Free America.” This aspirational vision describes a highly desirable future in plain language that is clear, memorable, and inspiring.

How does Feeding America pursue their vision? By executing their mission: “To feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.” This specific, concrete mission describes what this organization does – builds networks of food banks and engages people through advocacy and awareness efforts. And just like their vision statement, Feeding America’s mission is described in simple, plain language.

While mission and vision statements are often viewed as external marketing materials, they actually have a role to play internally as well. Each member of the team’s daily activities should line up with the mission. If anyone is doing things that do not match the mission, they are unlikely to contribute towards achieving the vision.

Because Mission and Vision statements get to the heart of what a team does and why they do it, it is a good idea to include team members in the process of developing them. This canvas provides an easy way to make sure everyone in your group has a voice in developing these statements.



Virtual Collaboration Tips From Team Toolkit

Virtual Collaboration Tips From Team Toolkit

The Innovation Toolkit believes that “constraints breed creativity,” and with this new COVID-19 environment, we’re all working within a brand-new set of constraints. Given we’re all meeting online more than ever, we wanted to share some best practices and lessons learned from the first couple months of collaborating remotely.

Before beginning the journey to hosting a successful online gathering (meeting, workshop, etc), first ask if the thing is even necessary in the first place. As the popular meme asks, “Could this meeting have been an email?” It’s important to recognize that we’re all dealing with new challenges, demands, and external factors that may affect our availability to participate in a virtual meeting.

Next, let’s admit that no matter what people may say about our “new normal,” this is not normal. Preparing and hosting a successful virtual gathering requires more time and effort when compared to an in-person meeting. Technology, distractions, and lack of non-verbal cues require preparation and risk mitigation strategies and techniques, and you’ve got to work extra hard to encourage active participation and a productive use of time.

To help you navigate these challenges, Team Toolkit assembled this collection of field-tested tips and techniques, and we hope you find them useful as well.

BEFORE the meeting

  1. Define the purpose. When you deemed the meeting necessary, you likely identified “why.” Get specific about the reason for the gathering, and avoid general explanations like “touch base” or “team brainstorm.”
  2. Understand the intended outcome(s). What does success look like? This should be specific so that the meeting participants can be held accountable.
  3. Determine who needs to be invited. Choose invitees wisely, as you’ll likely have more participation with fewer participants. If you have a large group, divide them into pre-assigned breakout groups (< 5 people) and call on the teams for responses rather than individuals. Assign roles such as team leads, notetaker, timekeeper, and chat monitor. You may want to provide office hours for participants to ask questions about their roles or technology beforehand or have follow-up questions after.
  4. Assign prework. What can be completed before the meeting so that it will take the least amount of time to get to the desired output? What can be done or collected asynchronously to make the best use of the time together in the meeting? Keep in mind, an hour of time multiplied by twenty people adds up quickly. What kind of preparation will make their time in the meeting more worthwhile?
  5. Prepare a detailed agenda. Create a specific and deliberate plan that limits the time you need people to pay attention. Bake in extra time for technical hiccups. Set time limits for each agenda item, map out points of interaction, and decide which communication tool(s) you’ll use. Allow some time in the front-end of the agenda for people to log in late. Also, if you’re leading the thing, be sure to log in early.

BEGINNING of the meeting

  1. Log in early to set up. Allow some space in your calendar to log onto the meeting early if you are the host to ensure everything is working as intended. Do a communications check with a trusted team member to ensure your audio is coming through clearly and screenshare is working. Have a redundant capability ready in case of degraded communications, such as logging in via cell phone audio.
  2. Orient participants to the tool. Once enough folks have joined, provide them verbal instructions on where to find their mute/unmute button (stay on mute unless you’re talking) and where to find the chat. Ask folks to give you a reaction in the chat (thumbs up, say hi, type your name, etc.) to get them familiar. This exercise also sets up an initial interaction and reinforces chat as an approved medium.
  3. Be inclusive of anyone not able to view the screen. Some participants may have called in or be unable to see the screen for a variety of reasons. Be sure to know if anyone in your meeting is in that situation. You may want to send files via email and verbally describe what we’re looking at on the screen. Asking “can anyone not see this?” helps prevent anyone from being left out.
  4. Set ground rules and meeting objective(s). Recognize that the ground rules may differ slightly from in-person meetings. Get buy-in from participants with a “thumbs up” in chat. Some that we have used include:
    • Be Present
    • State your name before speaking
    • One hot mic at a time
    • Temporarily turn on your webcam when speaking (if bandwidth/tool allows)
    • Leave your title/rank at the door; everyone’s input is equally valued
    • Affirm and build on each other’s ideas (“Yes, and…”) and be supportive rather than judgmental
    • Articulate hidden assumptions
    • Challenge cherished beliefs
    • Encourage wild, crazy ideas – don’t censor your ideas
    • Suspend judgment; practice grace

DURING the meeting

  1. Use chat. Take advantage of this added benefit to collect rapid inputs from people without everyone needing to unmute themselves. You can use it to ask for inputs and ideas or confirm understanding. Encourage people to respond with emojis, thumbs up, etc. if possible. Assign someone to be the chat monitor and relay questions to the presenter or answer them directly. Those who are less vocal may feel more comfortable sharing ideas via chat. Be sure to allow people time to formulate and type their ideas.
  2. Indicate who has the “hot mic” and who will have it next. When people don’t know when they will have time to respond, everyone jumps in, which creates more digital fumbling. Either state who will talk next to give them a heads up or assign an order of responses. If going around the room, give everyone a set amount of time (e.g. 90 seconds) for their response.
  3. Repeat yourself multiple times. This may seem obvious, but people are likely to get distracted and miss what you said the first and second time. With everyone more accessible working from home, it’s likely their receiving pings from chats, emails, texts, and more.
  4. Be patient. People tend to speak longer without non-verbal cue, so you’ll need to allow participants to finish their thoughts before moving on (or get good at kindly interrupting them). When asking for a response, wait double the amount of time you normally would allowing buffer time for bandwidth delays, digital fumbling to unmute, etc. The silence may feel awkward at first, but it creates space for everyone to participate.
  5. Collect ideas via the “one, some, all” method. Before opening up floodgates of discussion, give everyone time to brainstorm ideas individually, then discuss in smaller groups, and finally share out a summary of those ideas with everyone. Following this process gives participants time to think deeply about the question on their own before being swayed by others’ opinions.
  6. Refer to participants by name. In place of face-to-face closeness and eye contact, using people’s names can help establish rapport. When someone responds to your question, thank them using their name or call on people you haven’t heard from…with grace. Recognize that if you haven’t heard from them, they may have been distracted. Recommend starting with their name to get their attention, and ask specific For example, “Rachel, we want to give you a chance to chime in. What do you think is the best way to get people’s attention on virtual meetings?” is better than “Rachel, you haven’t said anything, what do you think about that?”
  7. Take difficult conversations offline. If receiving pushback from participants – especially with those you may not have interacted with before – it may be difficult to resolve the conflict in a virtual setting. Suggest taking the conversation offline so as to not lose group momentum.

 AFTER the meeting

  1. Send out any products or notes. For anyone who was unable to make the meeting or any action items discussed, share the output of the meeting.
  2. Determine if you need another meeting. Sometimes one meeting can lead to another, even if it’s to review next steps or hold office hours. Don’t wait too long to schedule this meeting, as folks will lose track of the meeting thread.