ITK Beyond Innovation

ITK Beyond Innovation

The funny thing about the Innovation Toolkit is… it’s not really about innovation.

Or more specifically, it’s not just about innovation. Most of our focus is actually on helping teams work together to solve hard problems. The fact that this approach to collaborative problem-solving tends to produce results that are novel and impactful (i.e. innovative) is sot of an added bonus. But the whole “working well together” thing is the main point.

Then again, the ITK movement is all about new ways of working together, bringing new groups together in new and interesting ways. We help teams function more effectively by being more collaborative, by asking better questions, and embracing more diversity. We introduce new tools and new techniques that help to unlock new levels of creativity.

So… maybe that’s what’s so innovative about ITK. Maybe the real innovation is the friends we made along the way.


The 3 Types of the 4 Types of Innovation

The 3 Types of the 4 Types of Innovation

I often point out that innovation is one of those words that gets USED more often than it gets DEFINED. That is true, but it’s also true that innovation gets defined ALL THE DANG TIME, and in lots of interesting and amusing ways.

For example, ask your favorite search engine to show you “types of innovation,” and you’ll be treated to a bewildering collection of frameworks, infographics, and diagrams, many of which claim to show THE different types of innovation. The image above shows three types of the four types of innovation, while the image below shows several different ways to arrange the 10 (9?) types of innovation.

It’s ok to have a little laugh about all this. This situation is indeed kinda funny, and can also be a little confusing. Here’s the good news – this situation is also informative and educational if we approach it the right way.

Instead of getting too attached to any particular representation of THE types of innovation, we might adopt a curious posture towards all of them. We may find that each framework illuminates some facet of innovation… and casts a shadow on other facets. We may discover that while each one provides some insight on the topic, each framework also introduces gaps that leaves important aspects unaddressed. Thus, we may benefit by becoming familiar with a whole bunch of them. And when we do that, we might even develop our own framework, our own contribution to the discussion.

As Seth Godin often points out, one hallmark of a professional – in any field – is that he or she does the reading, and is familiar with the latest developments and thinking in their field. So please consider this your personal invitation to do the reading this year. If you want to be a professional in a field that values innovation, you should be able to define innovation and not only discuss the different types, but also the different taxonomies – why and how they differ, the strengths and weaknesses and applications of each.

Chaotic Playfulness

Chaotic Playfulness

At its best, my ITK work is playful work. Silly work. Chaotic work. If ITK was a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, my personal alignment would definitely be Chaotic Playful. And yes, I know that’s not a real alignment. That’s why I picked it.

There’s a reason I take this approach and encourage my fellow ITK facilitators to do the same. There is a thoughtful and deliberate strategy beneath the mirth and mess I try to introduce in ITK sessions.

See, we spend a lot of time working with engineers and technologists. We are regularly called on to help serious-minded military leaders and government executives. As a rule, people in these groups tend to value structure, planning, order, discipline, predictability… crap like that. When these folks come to ITK, it’s generally because they are facing some big gnarly challenge that is resistant to being solved by status quo thinking. Their standard approach just isn’t cutting it. We aim to move participants out of their usual modes in order to help them explore new ideas and launch creative experiments. A strategy of playful chaos is a means to unlock creativity.

And of course, several of us have been in those same roles. We hold engineering degrees and have worn military uniforms. We’ve run up against the limitations of formal, official, tightly structured problem-solving methods. We know that playful approaches, however helpful and productive, don’t always come naturally to folks who grew up in those environments and who default to a more buttoned-up posture. We know we need to be nudged and encouraged to experiment and to lean in to the unknown. We all need to be shown how to do this, and we all need to be reassured that it’s ok to play, particularly when the problems are serious. And so we bring playful invitations and empathetic reassurances as strategic gifts to our ITK sessions.

It takes effort to bring a sense of fun and playfulness to this ITK thing. Or maybe “effort” is the wrong word. Maybe “intentionality” is what I’m looking for, or maybe “deliberate-ness.” But those terms feel a bit formal in the context of Chaotic Playfulness. Maybe it’s better to say it takes music and art and humor and imagination to bring a sense of playfulness into a room full of engineers. It also takes a touch of courage, and the good news is that playfulness emboldens. It’s easier to be brave when you’re also being playful.

So yes, an ITK session can get a little chaotic. Participants may occasionally feel off-balance, surprised by what happens next, or even briefly confused about the direction we’re heading. Those feelings are an important part of the innovation experience, and help to unlock people’s innate creativity. We find that bringing an explicitly playful approach helps people feel safe and supported as we do this challenging work together.

In closing, let’s take a moment to appreciate that last word: together. Our experience over the past few years has taught us that playfulness not only unlocks creativity and courage, it also builds community. Playfulness brings people together, which makes it an essential part of a successful ITK engagement.

(photo credit Bethany Ward)

Leave Nobody Behind

Leave Nobody Behind

This week’s post is by Jennifer Strickland.

In an ideal world, all tools, applications, and interfaces would be accessible for all from the beginning. The ITK tools are continually updated as we learn more about their uses and limitations. The next iteration aims to prioritize equitable and accessible design. Equitable design is about adaptability, revaluing ways of knowing, redefining roles, and seeking fairness. Accessibility is about access, generally for digital experiences, and can be measured by compliance with standards such as Section 508 (required for all federally-funded outputs) or the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG,

The current ITK tools use PDFs and the Mural platform, which may introduce usability issues for some people. For example:

  • The PDF content may not be usable for people with vision and mobility considerations.
  • Mural, an online visual whiteboarding tool, isn’t accessible via assistive technology such as screen readers or even keyboard.

Fortunately, it’s possible to rework the activities in alternate ways, to make them more inclusive for everyone. For example, the Lotus Blossom is one of the most-used ITK tools — what if there are screen reader users in your group? The PDF and Mural tools are not accessible for them. However, you can creatively use Teams or Zoom for the exercise.

  1. Explain to the group that they will identify eight subject areas, and afterwards will list related sub-elements of those.
  2. Have the attendees type a list of potential subjects in the chat message field — but not to hit Return until prompted.
  3. Give them 60 seconds to compose a list, then tell them to hit Return.
  4. Review the individual responses aloud among the group.
  5. Define your final eight in a chat message.
  6. Then, choose one subject area and have the group once again type a list of suggestions for the child items — but not to hit Return, until prompted.
  7. Give them 60 seconds to compose a list, then tell them to hit Return.
  8. Review those responses aloud among the group and distill the list of corresponding sub-elements.
  9. Repeat for the remaining seven areas.

Where there is a desire to be inclusive, there is always a way. Think about the purpose of the tool, abstract the steps, and be creative about the high or low technology options available. If you’re interested in collaborating to document more inclusive alternative examples to the ITK tools, please let me know!

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a Workshop Facilitator

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome as a Workshop Facilitator

This week’s guest blogger is Kerrianne Marino.

This summer, I facilitated a half-day workshop that focused on coming up with areas of exploration for Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) systems. I agreed to facilitate the session because I saw it as an exciting challenge. Admittedly, I was naively excited to do an in-person event and talk to people face to face again after Covid yanked that benefit for over a year.

After I sent the ‘yes’ confirming I would facilitate, I felt the ‘oh no’ directly after and convinced myself I had no business leading an exercise on a topic I knew nothing about. When I came onto the effort, someone had already proposed a schedule of events, so I scheduled my initial conversation with those who submitted the ITK request to go over goals and expectations. They wanted to get a group of a dozen or so experts in a room to brainstorm and prioritize different ideas for a FY22 plan. This conversation made me feel slightly better, but only enough to know what I didn’t know.

A list of worries started running through my head…

  • What if no one has ideas and we’re sitting in silence until I come up with an idea to write down and break the silence?
  • What if that idea I present is STUPID and they all find out I know nothing about this space?
  • What if I don’t know how to summarize someone’s idea onto a notecard?
  • What if we miss documenting a bright idea?
  • What if we run out of time?
  • What if no one shows up?
  • What if…

I asked the ITK group of trainees if anyone could help support and was able to bring someone onboard and brought them up to speed. I frantically asked one of the ITK veterans to hop on a call to walk us through best practices on the Card Sorting tool we were planning to use.

As we discussed best practices, I went on to admit I was nervous for the workshop, having had no experience in this domain. She looked at me with convincing eyes (yay for video cameras!) and replied, ‘But you do!’ And listed the ways in which I did have tangential knowledge related to workshop mission. I straightened up, and with her encouragement, snapped into the realization that my experience with Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and human-machine teaming projects would give me all I needed and more to push this group forward.

Jumping to facilitation day – the workshop went great! We started with defining the problem statement in the form of a ‘How might we?’ question, and I even helped by throwing ideas on the board, which led to productive discussion. The card sorting activity unlocked so many insightful discussions.

I was surprised to notice that for a good chunk of time, the leads came short of introducing ideas. This made me realize- that’s why I am here. To shepherd this group into a think-tank and feed them the materials they need to set their ideas in motion.

We documented the topics and ideas people came up with, as well as some themes the other facilitator and I noticed, and sent them off to the leads, who used the workshop’s outcomes to inform the future of the department’s NC3 work.

Here are a few tips I learned from this experience:

  • Find people you can talk with that will convince you that you can do it!
  • Get help! I requested someone else join me in the workshop to help facilitate small breakout groups and note-take
  • Print out/present ‘conversation’ pieces. I drew out the Market Opportunity Navigator shown below (from Where To Play) so everyone could ground their thoughts in terms of prioritization and feasibility. We were working in the ‘center-bullet’ area in the Agile Focus Dartboard.


A row of three squares, labeled Market Opportunity, Attractiveness Map, and Agile Dartboard