Innovation Tool Kit (ITK): It Really Does Work!

Today’s post is by Lynne Cuppernull, one of our new members of the ITK community, plus a brief interlude by Jim Jellison

Last September, about 80 MITRE leaders in the Health FFRDC participated in a two-hour introduction to the Innovation Toolkit (ITK)—a collection of methods and techniques curated by a team of cross-disciplinary MITRE experts to help teams work together to solve hard problems.  A lot of leaders learned about the tools, but did anyone DO anything with them? You are about to find out!

Charity Begins at Home, With a Pre-Mortem!

I figured I’d better be able to do what we were asking our leaders to do. So I tested out a couple of tools with some internal teams. The leadership team in my department took the Pre-Mortem tool for a spin. Just like it sounds, the Pre-Mortem involves what may come before a “death” – in this case, our department utterly and totally failing. By imagining failure, we were able to effectively land on what success would look like for us a year from now and we actually had fun imagining the utter failure (once we were able to stop hyperventilating over the perceived failures, which were pretty epic).

We also tried using the Rose, Bud, Thorn tool as a quick way to assess our weekly division leadership team meetings and came up with good ideas about how we could use the time more effectively. I love the Rose, Bud, Thorn tool because it is so easy, and you can use it with anything or anyone (including kids). It’s a simple framework that helps a group conduct an analysis by visually categorizing the positive (Rose), potential (Bud), or negative (Thorn) aspects of a topic, such as a system, product, process, meeting – you name it.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: ITK and Sponsor Conversations

The tools worked well for us internally – but would our sponsors appreciate them? We enlisted the help of Dan Ward, one of the ITK originals, to work with us to plan a conversation with our sponsor to ensure we really understood the problem the sponsor had. Enter Dan and the Problem Framing canvas to help us work with the sponsor to understand more about the most critical problems facing this agency. We knew our sponsor worked best with a few thoughtful questions, so we tuned the ITK tool to simplify it for our discussion with the sponsor. Some of the questions we asked, in addition to “What is the problem?” were:

  • Who has this problem?
  • When and where do they experience it?
  • What are the elements of the problem (physical, social, emotional, professional)
  • What is the scope (small to big, trivial to serious, static to dynamic)
  • Who else has it? Who does not have it and why not?
  • Why haven’t we solved it?

Not only did we come up with one problem statement in our one-hour meeting with the sponsor, we came up with two, which we then used to frame out a couple of discussion documents with approaches, that became our next conversation with the sponsor.

ITK in the Real World: CDC and CODI

Hoping I was not alone, in late October I put out a call to all the people who attended the two-hour ITK sessions in September to see if others had tried the tools yet. It turned out some people had – yay!

Jim Jellison was one of the few brave people who went right to using an ITK took on a health data project. In his words, here is how it went:

Program: We are  integrating data from clinical electronic health record systems with data collected by community-based organizations that deliver programs and services for chronic disease management.

Goal: The idea is to improve data capabilities for both evaluating disease intervention programs and conducting public health surveillance. The work involves partnerships between healthcare providers, CBOs, national associations, and other stakeholders that have influence in the locations we are conducting pilot implementations.

Problem statement: It’s the first time these partners are coming together to create this type of data exchange and there are many ways things could go wrong.

ITK in action: To identify some of those risks and build trust among this nascent partnership, we worked with the ITK team to conduct a Pre-Mortem exercise. I was intrigued with the tool yet wary of making the sponsor nervous by discussing failure. We vetted the concept with them in advance and they were game. With the ITK team facilitating the exercise, the MITRE project team was able to participate as another member of the partnership.

Results: To my relief, the session was well received. Our partners’ concerns, or what they thought failure might look like, highlighted the prospect of implementing functional data exchange but not generating useful information or sustainable infrastructure for our partners. Perhaps more importantly, by giving colleagues (and ourselves) permission to be skeptical and candid we strengthened the collaborative relationships we’ll need for this project.

Back to Lynne Cuppernull…

My hope, as we head into 2021, is that we can expand our use of these simple and effective tools across the Health FFRDC, using them with each other and with our sponsors to solve hard problems.

I am finishing up being “certified” as an ITK user and coach for others and I would love for more people to become certified too. Just shoot an email to Team Toolkit at if you are interested. But you do not have to be certified to use the tools! Just willing to experiment and be open to new ways of doing things, like brainstorming.

We would love to hear more examples of how people have used the ITK tools–what worked, what didn’t, what you modified. Please let us know in the comments – and we will keep the information flowing about the tools!



Introducing the updated Problem Framing Canvas!

Introducing the updated Problem Framing Canvas!

Learn more about the equity-driven updates to one of our most popular ITK tools.

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As part of Team Toolkit’s collaboration with the MITRE Social Justice Platform, we embarked on taking a fresh look at our ITK tools with an equity lens.

Equity-driven design thinking encourages us to create not just inclusive and diverse solutions, but to create equitable solutions. Equitable solutions are available to all (e.g., equal access), and they also help equalize who benefits from the solution (e.g., many groups benefit, not just one). Equity-driven design thinking helps ensure we design at the margins, for those who have the greatest need, who are traditionally left out of the design process. When we design at the margins, we design for everyone.

One way we can do this is by considering who has been traditionally “left out” and to design solutions that level the playing field. In addition, equity-driven design thinking encourages us, as the designers, to take a critical look at our own assumptions and biases that we inherently bring to the table and implicitly embed as part of the final solution.

First up was one of our most popular tools: Problem Framing canvas.

Visually, you’ll notice that we’ve partitioned the Problem Framing canvas into three areas: Look Inward, Look Outward, and Reframe.

Look Inward speaks directly to the additional step, Notice, in equity-driven design thinking. In this section, participants are guided to look not only at the problem they are facing, but also how they themselves might be part of the problem. We’ve added questions to encourage groups to explicitly discuss assumptions and biases, and as part of the Reflect step in equity-driven design thinking, participants are asked to imagine which of these assumptions may be designed, reframed, or removed.

New questions have also been added to dig deeper into who experiences the problem. We ask participants to consider the lived experiences and consequences that users who have this problem face, which may otherwise have been overlooked. We also added equity-related factors for why this problem hasn’t been solved, such as lack of authority or a situational inequity.

Look outward also speaks directly to the Notice step in equity-driven design thinking. In this section, we encourage participants to broaden their thinking to find more insights and inspiration by learning from others who may or may not have this problem.

We’ve added questions to encourage participants to consider who has been left out, as well as to examine who benefits when the problem does or does not exist. We’ve also added an equity-related factor for why others don’t have this problem, which is that it’s been transferred.

Reframe culminates the Reflect step in equity-driven design thinking by asking participants to synthesize their insights and discussions into a succinct problem statement. We’ve streamlined the suggested “How Might We” statement to help groups create more powerful, action-oriented statements.

Lastly, we’ve introduced new “Question Bank” and “Facilitation Tips” sections in the Instructions to further assist problem framing discussions. These additional questions can provide more richness to the discussion, as well as deeper inquiry into the problem.

One final important point – Although we’ve updated the Problem Framing canvas with an equity-driven lens, this tool can be used to guide discussions on ALL problems, not just equity-related problems. By embedding this equity-driven lens into the questions and the tool itself, this naturally leads to discussions that will help create more equitable solutions since they bring equity to the forefront, rather than relying on a participant to bring them up.

We hope you find the updated Problem Framing canvas useful, and let us know what you think in the comments below!

Clean Water For Communities in Need

W|W Filter Build Transparent.png

Today’s post is by guest blogger Riley Fujioka!

Did you know that 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water? Or that globally, 1 in 4 healthcare facilities lack basic water services? You can help bring clean water to these underserved communities.

At MITRE, we have to come together to put a dent in these statistics by partnering with Wine to Water, an international non-profit organization focused on ending the root cause of global poverty. They provide sustainable water solutions in communities around the world, and we’re working with a student-led team at The Madeira School on a volunteer event. Our goal is to reach over 1,000 people with clean water by raising money to build clean water filters and to make a difference through the power of clean water.

Between now and late January, we invite you to join our fundraiser. Your donation will enable Wine to Water to obtain and distribute filter building kits that will be sent to all fundraiser contributors. Then, during our virtual filter building event on World Water Day, March 22, you can build the filters at home. These will be distributed globally to communities in need and also support disaster relief efforts.

Leading up to this event in March, we will host a series of keynote speakers from the Wine to Water team as well as members of communities around the world who will be directly impacted by these filters, so you can learn more about the positive impact you will be making through this effort. We’ll be sharing registration details as the virtual events are scheduled.

According to Shared Justice: ‘Unclean water can cause serious and costly health issues, and studies have found that poor and minority communities across the U.S. are disproportionately affected by polluted waters.’ The issue is much worse outside of the United States, where lack of sanitation and access to basic health care led to millions of deaths each year.”

Each filter costs around $50 in materials to make and distribute. To participate in a virtual hands-on experience to build kits for families around the globe without clean drinking water, contribute to our fundraiser, and register for the event here

Please join us in fundraising and building clean water filters for communities all around the world!

©2021 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for Public Release; Distribution Unlimited. Case Number 20-3448

Collaboration Tips

This week’s blog post is by Maria Altebarmakian, one of our new ITK Trainees! 

By now we have all felt the pain of trying to collaborate and communicate with others remotely. Messages go unseen or unanswered, a train of thought is interrupted by a constant stream of notifications, and collaboratively iterating on ideas requires more intentionality. The online environment completely transforms how ideas can be shared, how they are communicated, and how they are understood.

Different mechanisms for online communication impact the extent and ways in which a group works and makes progress. Sometimes a quick chat message is enough, while other situations require a more in-depth video call. Intentionally designing the way participants communicate and collaborate online can make it easier for groups to work together on a task.

Here are some tips for three types of online communication for collaborative environments: text-based, audio-only, and video + audio.

  1. Text-based
    What are some examples?
    Email, Slack, Teams chat, message boards
    What are the advantages?
    It doesn’t require that all participants are contributing at the same time, so coordinating schedules becomes less of an issue. People also get more time to reflect on the ideas of others and formulate their own ideas.
    What are the challenges?
    When communication is totally text-based, it becomes more time-consuming to both generate contributions and understand contributions. Typing requires more upfront effort: you type, you read, you re-read, you edit, you add, you delete, etc. In a large enough group, many contributions may be added to the discussion from the time you start typing an idea to the time you are ready to send it. Monitoring and understanding the conversation can become more difficult as the sequence of the conversation can become jumbled.Also, tone of voice and non-verbal cues are lost with this form of communication. It becomes more difficult to know if others agree, are listening, noticed your message, and so on.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Organize the conversation into threads. It will become easier to monitor the space and also easier to retroactively understand the train of thought the group went through to arrive at a given conclusion.
    Slow down the pace. Some people will want to curate their response before sending it to the group. This can result in them spending a long time thinking through what they want to say. By slowing down the pace of the conversation, these individuals can find the time and opportunity to also make their thoughts heard.
    Use emojis to express that you’re paying attention. Keep in mind that the person on the other side of the screen does not know if you’re paying attention and noticing their messages unless you actively respond in some way. Adding a quick thumbs up or thumbs down can help others know where you stand on a topic of discussion. Responding with short messages to convey that a message was received and understood also can help to mitigate this issue.
  1. Audio-only
    What are some examples?
    Phone calls, Teams (without video), Zoom (without video), Skype calls
    What are the advantages?
    Vocal intonation comes across, so you can tell if someone is being genuine, sarcastic, engaged, or uninterested.
    What are the challenges?
    Depending on group size, it can be difficult for everyone to have an opportunity to contribute. Determining whose “turn” it is to speak isn’t obvious and participants who are shy might feel uncomfortable contributing.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Set up expectations for the flow of conversation. This may look different from one meeting to the next, depending on group size, hierarchy among participants, and other factors. For some situations it may make sense to have a moderator who manages turn-taking within the conversation. For other situations, setting up an agenda with a timeframe for each topic of discussion may suffice.
    Make space for quieter participants to contribute. If you are hosting a conference call with audio only and notice that some participants are taking over the conversation while others are quietly listening, gently asking those on the call who haven’t spoken in a while if they have anything to contribute on the current topic opens up the space for more points of view to be expressed.
  1. Video + Audio chat
    What are some examples?
    Teams, Zoom
    What are the advantages?
    With video chats, both vocal intonation and some non-verbal cues can be expressed. You can see what participants are nodding along or shaking their heads, who is distracted by notifications elsewhere on the screen, and so on. This can help to make speakers feel that there are others actually present with them, which can make the space feel more comfortable.
    What are the challenges?
    Video calls can be intimidating for some compared to other online avenues of communication. After a long day of video calls, people start to experience “Zoom fatigue”, making it more difficult to stay attentive and focused.
    The video feed can also invite in many distractions, with people focusing more on someone’s artwork on the wall behind them instead of what the person is saying.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Not everyone needs their video on at all times. Setting up some recommendations for participants, such as turning on video when they want to contribute or having only a subset of the group keep their video on, can leverage some of the benefits of video calls while mitigating some of the challenges. Being strategic about when you share your camera can help to combat “Zoom fatigue” and make the space feel less intimidating.
    Use custom backgrounds. Most of the meeting software now will allow users to set custom backgrounds that will blur out or replace their background so the focus will be on the speaker themselves. A good background will be simple: a solid color, a generic conference room, or a simple background blur are all great options. This can help to minimize distractions.
    Background distractions aren’t a negative in all cases. In some circumstances, building rapport within the team is an important element of the online meeting. Meeting with others online can feel distant and impersonal. Being able to see their space behind them can help to make them more “real”. For example, seeing a guitar in the background of another participant’s video feed can spark social conversations about music or learning an instrument that ultimately help participants feel more connected. In the long run, this can help the group feel more comfortable discussing their ideas, which boosts the potential for productive collaboration.

The best method for online communication will vary from one collaborative situation to the next. The key is to be thoughtful when deciding how to organize your team’s online collaborative sessions.

What have you found to be challenging when it comes to effectively communicating online? What tips and tricks do you use to address those challenges?