Want your engineering team to be more innovative? Try this proven improv technique!

Want your engineering team to be more innovative? Try this proven improv technique!

Co-Authors: Awais Sheikh, Dan Ward, Niall White
The pressure to be “innovative” is at an all-time high for projects, organizations, and companies across all industries. Unicorn companies (startups valued at $1+ Billion) are sought after wide and far, and leaders everywhere are encourage their staff to be more innovative. However, how does one actually become more innovative? What if being innovative was not just the domain of a select group, but skills that anyone could learn?  

One of the key elements to birth innovation is creativity, which is usually associated with the arts rather than science and engineering. However, creativity is not confined to only one domain, and there are ample ways to cultivate curiosity on even the most left-brained teams.   

One powerful technique is borrowed from the world of Improv, where the best improv performers build their scenes using a technique called Yes, And. Yes-And is a cornerstone practice in all sorts of improvisational creation, whether it is comedy or jazz or painting happy little trees. The basic idea is to affirm a previous contribution (yes), then build or expand on it (and). Team Toolkit hypothesized that teaching Yes-And could help cultivate creativity and innovation. We decided to test our hypothesis with a group very familiar to us at MITRE – Our fellow engineers! 

Team Toolkit invited a half-dozen colleagues to join us for a series of four online workshops where we practiced Yes-and, and also explored how to apply this practice to our everyday technical work. They said yes… and so we dove right in! 

Our workshops introduced the concept and practice of Yes-And, as well as the benefits, perils, and lessons from this approach. We practiced improv exercises, stretched people outside of their comfort zone, and had a lot of fun! In between the laughs, we also learned about what it takes to truly practice Yes-and. Active listening is crucial to hear what our colleagues are saying, so we can respond to it. We also learned that the more vulnerable we are with each other, the easier it becomes to share our ideas.   

We discussed how these concepts apply to our work as engineers. Sometimes our “expert culture” can prevent us from actively listening to our colleagues in meetings. By practicing Yes-And, we force ourselves to not only listen, but to build on each others’ ideas to create better solutions.  

The results of our experiments confirmed our hypothesis that Yes-And can be taught, and that it can also help improve the quality and impact of our work.  

However, what surprised us the most was the personal impact that our experiment had on our participants. Here are some of the things they had to say: 

  • Life feels significantly less hard after each session.” 
  • “I was at first dubious about the need for using video, but seeing how the ITK folks use their video changed the way I think about it. This workshop raised my awareness of how I communicate with my group and gave me some tools to increase the amount of positive collaboration. “ 
  • “I am going to take a more active role in shaping the team to be more like what I want it to be: inclusive, curious, etc.” 
  • “If you’re wondering how to build a more inviting, creative, and respectful culture, you should absolutely attend this workshop.” 

Who knew that one Improv practice could transform people’s views, actions, and outlooks! 

So, if you’re looking to cultivate innovation in your organization, definitely try practicing Yes-and and encourage your teammates to learn this skill. Let us know in the comments below how your experience goes! 

Equity-Driven Design & Innovation

Equity-Driven Design & Innovation

Co-Author: Tammy Freeman

How might we ensure equity is inherent in the design process from Day 1? Read on to hear how Team Toolkit is partnering with the Good Trouble Lab as part of MITRE’s Social Justice & Social Innovation initiatives.

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2020 has been the unexpected year of a global health pandemic, nationwide protests demanding justice, and record-setting wildfires along the west coast. Even the Pentagon has confirmed the existence of UFOs! Without a doubt, 2020 has forced all of us to adapt to a new “normal” and like it or not, change is here. And like true innovators, we recognize that with all great disruption comes great opportunity.

In this case, MITRE is embarking upon a new journey to bring our expertise to the cause of social justice. We recently stood up a Social Justice Platform to initiate, facilitate and drive social change*. Our conversations for social justice have centered around equity. That is, how can we ensure that everyone has equitable access, participation, and fair treatment?

Equity acknowledges that race, gender, geographic location, wealth, and other socio-economic factors may create an uneven playing field. Equity, quite simply, seeks to make the playing field level and unencumbered for everyone. Equity may be confused with its close cousin, Inclusion & Diversity. However, there are subtle nuances between these areas. To better understand, consider these powerful questions that Isabelle Yisak asks us:

  • Diversity asks, “Who’s in the room?” Equity responds: “Who is trying to get in the room but can’t? Whose presence in the room is under constant threat of erasure?”
  • Inclusion asks, “Has everyone’s ideas been heard?” Justice responds, “Whose ideas won’t be taken as seriously because they aren’t in the majority?”
  • Diversity asks, “How many more of [pick any minoritized identity] group do we have this year than last?” Equity responds, “What conditions have we created that maintain certain groups as the perpetual majority here?”
  • Diversity celebrates increases in numbers that still reflect minoritized status on [a college] campus and incremental growth. Equity celebrates reductions in harm, revisions to abusive systems and increases in supports for people’s life chances as reported by those who have been targeted.

Equity and inclusion are not something we should think about after, but rather something that should be embedded throughout all stages of our work. Diversity is a fact.  As such, we must design inclusively, we can no longer suffer the devastating consequences of solutions that are not equitable.

When Tammy Freeman, a fellow Innovation co-conspirator and the new co-lead for the Social Innovation focus area under the Social Justice Platform, invited Team Toolkit to collaborate on this intersection of equity-driven design & innovation, it was a no brainer! Together, Team Toolkit is partnering with the Social Innovation’s Good Trouble Lab to embed an equity lens in the work we do at MITRE and to support our sponsors and community in designing equitable solutions, programs and projects.

And the first place we’re starting? The Toolkit itself. We’re currently creating new innovation tools with an equity lens, as well as adding an equity lens to some of our existing tools. And in the spirit of sharing messy first drafts, here’s us “going public” before it’s complete!

Our journey is just beginning, and we’ll be sharing more on what we are doing, what we learn, and how you can help. Stay tuned, and let us know in the comments below what ideas you have to bring more equity into your work and organization!

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* Curious how we do this? We do this by examining, understanding, and disrupting systemic issues that hinder social justice and by providing objective, apolitical data, products, and capabilities. This helps policymakers, public leaders, and private sector leaders replace outdated arrangements with more equitable solutions that meet the needs of all.

The Double Diamond

The Double Diamond

The double diamond is a well-known visual map of the design process starting with the challenge at hand and ending with a final solution. The process pairs divergent thinking (where the participants come up with many ideas) with convergent thinking (narrowing the ideas down to the most feasible and practical).

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The Double Diamond is a problem-solving framework that originally began in the design world. It describes four phases of problem solving:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Design the right thing
  3. Design the thing right
  4. Deliver

The first phase is when a problem is acknowledged, and the problem-solving challenge is introduced. Phase 2 and 3 are the active portions of the problem-solving process where the solution is ideated, designed, and created. In the last phase, the solution is delivered to the user.

The diamonds represent the different types of thinking that are needed during the problem-solving process. The left-hand side of each diamond represents Divergent Thinking. This is when teams are encouraged to widen their thinking and generate a broad range of ideas. On this side of the diamond, quantity is more important than quality. Divergent thinking benefits from diversity of thought, so be sure to include new and varied team members who can help everyone think outside of the box.

ITK Tip: Check out the 4 tools in the “Generate Ideas” category of our Toolkit: Lotus Blossom, Mind Mapping, TRIZ Prism, and Bodystorming!

After a certain threshold (based on time or some other factor), the team then moves into the right-hand side of the diamond. This area represents Convergent Thinking, where the team narrows their thinking. Here, they’ll focus on reducing, prioritizing, and eliminating many options into one. The team will often use evaluation criteria to help them remove options.

ITK Tip: Check out the 3 tools in the “Evaluation Options” category of our Toolkit: Rose, Bud, Thorn; Stormdraining; and Prototyping!

You’ll notice that there is a diamond in both Phase 2 and Phase 3. That’s because this cycle of divergent and convergent thinking is an iterative process. Although the diagram doesn’t explicitly show it, you can actually repeat the diamond pattern multiple times within one phase, whether in parallel or in series!

Another thing you’ll notice is the similarity of the labels in Phase 2 and Phase 3. However, they are critically different in meaning: In Phase 2, you design the right thing, whereas in Phase 3, you design the thing right.

The key distinction here is that Phase 2’s priority is to make sure you define the problem well. A clearly articulated problem statement ensures that all teammates are on the same page and that it’s a problem worth solving. If this phase is skipped, team may find themselves creating solutions for symptoms of a problem, rather than the real problem itself.

ITK Tip: Check out the Problem Framing canvas!

Once the team gains consensus on the problem, then the team embarks into Phase 3 where they can begin creating solutions. The team again flows from divergent to convergent thinking until they arrive at a final solution. Especially in Phase 3, it’s very common to have multiple iterations of this diamond cycle.

That’s the double diamond in a nutshell, and let us know in the comments below how your team uses this framework!

The Innovator’s Burn: Transform your frustration into the Innovator’s Fuel

The Innovator’s Burn: Transform your frustration into the Innovator’s Fuel

Learning how to embrace and unlock your frustration is one of your most powerful sources for innovation.

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“Man, this [whatever is status quo] sucks. We could totally do this way better.”

– Every Innovator. Ever.


Have you ever been frustrated at how slowly things are progressing (if at all)?

Do you have ideas and solutions for the problems you see, but feel like you’re banging your head against the wall because no one else is willing to do anything about it?

Are you aggravated by ambivalent decision-makers who are holding you back at the gate, rather than arming you with their backing and resources to charge ahead?

And the key question: Are you so fired up about this that you can’t help but feel the need to DO something?!

If you are vigorously nodding your head ‘yes’, then congratulations: You are feeling the Innovator’s Burn!

I know, the feeling sucks. Frustration, anger, and tension definitely do NOT feel like something to be congratulated for.

However, THIS is the moment that separates the Innovators from the Couch Complainers.

Innovators embrace their frustration because they understand that their frustration is alerting them to a gap between where they are and where they want to go. Which means: Here’s an opportunity! If this gap exists for them, then it may exist for others too.

Innovators harness this insight, and they decide they will do something about it. They transform their frustration into inspiration & motivation to create a solution. And they take action.

They create. They get out there and start asking questions. They conduct market research. They convert problems into actionable ‘How Might We’ questions. They sketch early ideas. They prototype. They put their creation out there for feedback. And then they iterate. And they keep going.  

For Innovators, their initial frustration was so intense that they are determined to do whatever it takes to find a solution so that their experience won’t happen again. Even when they encounter setbacks and rejections (which happen to all of us!), they are motivated to keep going because their experience has left such a lasting imprint on them. Unbeknownst to them, their frustration has become their Innovator’s Fuel: a powerful, intrinsic source of energy that thrusts them towards success. It compels them to keep going, and it re-energizes them when they are feeling low. 

While the Innovator is hustling to create something that will change someone’s world for the better, the Couch Complainers continue to complain and vent to anyone who will listen. Rather than taking action, they inadvertently maintain the status quo by doing nothing. Eventually, they start saying, “it is what it is” as they shrug their shoulders and clock out for the day.

So when you find yourself frustrated, ask yourself: Do I want to be an Innovator or a Couch Complainer? What is my frustration here to tell me? How might I transform this frustration into inspiration & motivation?

By learning to embrace your frustration, you unlock your ability to transform something that’s unsatisfactory into insights for innovation. You also you unleash one of your most powerful sources of the Innovator’s Fuel. Now, go forth and innovate!


Innovation Speed Test: Are you hustling or are you scrambling?

Innovation Speed Test: Are you hustling or are you scrambling?

It’s critical to know the difference between when you are responding swiftly to dynamic opportunities vs. when you are in an ineffective reaction cycle leading to nowhere good.

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Have you ever noticed that when someone is starting a new business or venture on the side, they call it their “side-hustle” rather than their “side-scramble”?

Or how about when you ask new (and even mature) startups about how things are going with growing their product or business? I’m willing to bet their response is bound to include some variation of, “It’s going great! We’re super busy and hustling 24/7.”

Due to the nature of innovation (something new that makes a difference), there is frequently an associated pace of quickness and dynamic movement. Being the first to offer a new product or service gives a highly desirable competitive edge in the market, and to be first often requires extra effort and making rapid adjustments based on external feedback. For example, although you can do market studies beforehand, you can’t perfectly predict how your users will take your offering and run with it.

However, true innovators will incorporate this new feedback and swiftly adapt their product or service accordingly to become more desirable to the end-user. Although it’s fast-paced, the team knows where they are heading, and the experience of responding dynamically will feel invigorating. This is called ‘The Hustle’.

To hustle means to obtain by energetic activity[i].

A classic example of this ability to swiftly adapt is YouTube, whose initial concept was to become a video version of a dating site. When they first launched, the original founders observed how users were uploading a larger spectrum of videos that went well beyond their initial concept. They acted upon their observations and moved quickly to widen the scope of their original platform. By hustling, YouTube became the market leader for video sharing and grew into a billion-dollar company.

Now, let’s compare this to another common high-speed scenario: The Scramble.

The Scramble typically happens in organizations with a hierarchical management structure. In this case, the initial “external” feedback comes from management, who must approve before the team can engage with the target audience. The Scramble often occurs when a team works diligently on an effort and presents their final results to the boss for approval, however, the boss surprises them with a pithy response along the lines of, “This isn’t what I’m looking for, I want X and it needs to be right by tomorrow.” Or, the boss may reveal new, critical information that vastly changes the original effort’s direction.

The team is a bit disappointed since they hadn’t received any prior indicators of being on the wrong track, or they might feel foolish for their prior actions which they wouldn’t have taken if they’d received the critical information earlier. Although feeling slightly discouraged, the team is still motivated to get it right, so they go back to the drawing board and re-work their design throughout the night based on the few comments the boss did make. But when they present their updated results in the morning, the boss again says, “X isn’t what I want, I want Y and it needs to be right by tomorrow.”

The team is again re-directed from the path they were on. However, now they are becoming bewildered: They were confident that they were on the right track based on the boss’s most recent feedback but again, they were wrong. The team is confused and starting to doubt themselves and each other. As this cycle continues repeating, more desperate ideas are acted upon. Frustration creeps in because this is an effort that everybody thought they’d be victorious in, but the boss continues to be unsatisfied and they can’t move on until the boss approves. Although the team is moving quickly based on the boss’s feedback, they’re not actually making progress. Without aiming to, this team has ended up in The Scramble.

To scramble is to move with urgency or panic[ii].

You’ll know you’re in The Scramble when you’re constantly making rapid changes that yield little to no value, and you find yourself feeling frustrated, exhausted, and resentful. 

Although The Hustle and The Scramble both require making rapid changes and responding to external feedback, there is a key difference: Clear decision-making, effective communication, and common vision, or lack thereof.

In The Hustle, the team is moving quickly and they are on the same page. Clear leadership enables quick decision making, as well as critical thinking and evaluation for which feedback to incorporate and which to ignore. Through effective communication, the team works synergistically towards the same goal to produce a high-quality product.

In The Scramble, the team is moving quickly but they are diverging rather than converging. Communication is muddled and some team members have more information than others, which obstructs a common vision. Ambivalent leadership creates more confusion and delay as decisions become reactive to all feedback, rather than intentional responses focused on the long-term. The changes being made are trivial or administrative, rather than significant or quality-boosting.

Unfortunately, teams that start in The Hustle with the best of intentions may eventually find themselves in The Scramble. Even to the experienced innovator, there is a fine line between The Hustle and The Scramble. Fortunately, there are some subtle differences if you pay attention:

The Hustle The Scramble
Making rapid changes feels energizing and motivating Making rapid changes feels exhausting and tiring
Each change is adding value and quality to your final product/service Each change starts to feel more and more pointless and reduces the final quality
The series of changes takes your product/service to a new place The series of changes becomes cyclical and you end up back at the beginning
Actions are responsive, aka deliberate, intentional, and aimed at the long-term Actions are reactive, aka knee-jerk, reflexive, and aimed at the short-term
The team is on the same page The team is divided
The final result is a win The final result never comes


Being stuck in The Scramble doesn’t mean you have to stay there!

You can take deliberate action to shift your team out of this place, and here are some tips & ITK tools to help:

  • Converge the team towards a common vision with the Mission Vision canvas
  • Re-baseline your team on the unique value that your product/service offers with the Value Proposition Canvas, and use this as an evaluation factor for all development decisions moving forward
  • Identify where communication gaps are happening on your team by using Storyboarding or Journey Mapping. Then, take action to fix or mitigate these communication gaps.
  • Acknowledge what is and isn’t working and re-inspire the team by identifying opportunities with the Rose, Bud, Thorn.

So when things are moving fast, take a few minutes to pause and ask yourself, “Are we scrambling… or are we hustling?!”

It’s critical to know whether you’re hustling or scrambling so that you can take the appropriate actions to ensure that team morale and productivity are high, as well as ensuring that you’re working towards a high-quality final product.

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[i] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hustle

[ii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scramble