This week’s post is from Conor Mahoney, one of our new ITK Facilitator candidates

Every morning when I fire up my laptop, I often take a few minutes to peruse the latest postings on Arxiv, SSRN, and ArsTechnica, to ensure that I stay up with new technological developments and research findings. As a data scientist, a field that is both rather nebulously defined and constantly evolving, this is a task that often leads me chasing new “white rabbits” down their intellectual warrens like Alice from Alice in Wonderland.  As I fixate on a new shiny object my thoughts immediately turn to my Sponsor’s programs, like someone working on a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, I see this new widget or tool filling in some gap in capability or function and greatly enhancing the end result.

However, successful innovation efforts rarely begin that way, with a technology in search of a use case. After 22 years inside the federal government and military ecosystem, I have yet to see this approach work. Instead, the majority of the successful innovation efforts I have participated in started by deconstructing an existing problem and identifying areas where technological injects or process refinements could alleviate user pain or deliver enhanced results. It can be difficult to resist the siren call of the shiny and new and focus instead on what really delivers value: enhanced capabilities tied to well documented user needs.

To that end I developed a phased approach that focuses teams on realizing and ameliorating problems, using several of the ITK tools. I call it the D4 approach to innovation, and it involves Discovery (identifying mission or capability problems) Deliberation (Identifying what pain points or capability gaps to address based on the perceived value gain), Deconstruction (unwrapping the problem to identify its threads, touchpoints, and relationships) and Development (ideating on solutions). I believe that one of its best value propositions for this approach is its ability to familiarize “outsiders” to a project and the problems looking to be addressed.  Bringing in people from outside fields, mission areas, and organizations to look at problems with new perspectives and fresh approaches can often lead to excellent, outside of the box, ideas and it increases the diversity of thought that can be used to attack a problem set.

In terms of ITK tools this process can be thought of roughly as: Define, Understand, Generate, and Evaluate.  In the Defining phase I might use Problem Framing to develop and document the problem statement at hand. With a group consensus on a problem statement, I can then Journey Map out the problem against a user or system perspective. As I move to Understand, I might break out the Triz Prism; which flows in sequence because it focuses on a well-defined problem (which I developed over the previous phases) and ends on a specific solution. Finally, during the Evaluate phase I like Rose, Bud, Thorn to identify potential issues with our specified solution or enhancement and to consider potential negative impacts to other processes or related capabilities.

There is, of course, no wrong answer when it comes to tool-chaining across the ITK tool palette. But putting tools end to end that build on one another is a useful approach that provides for continuity of thought and focus and it can help ensure that the innovation session never gets too far off the rails. Thinking about the tools as part of a larger, integrated, process and planning their use beforehand will often also provide “parking lots” for when team members rush towards a solution without defining a problem. I hope you enjoyed reading about my approach, and I hope you have fun innovating out your own.