This week’s post is by Niall White
My family recently acquired a very old, sparkly blue boat. Being somewhat new to boating, just about everything is an adventure! The boat operated very well the first few times we took it on the water, but we later found ourselves troubleshooting an elusive problem for nearly two hours before we could embark on our evening foray into the wake. The symptoms were simple…when turning the ignition key, nothing happened. After many online instructional videos, forums, and moments of frustration, we finally discovered a very small fuse, only about ¾’ long, that had blown since our last excursion. After diagnosing this, it wasn’t long before we were back on the water.
Obvious Symptoms, Hidden Problem
Though seemingly small and insignificant, this inexpensive part stopped the engine from running. The problem wasn’t obvious at the outset (though perhaps it would have been to someone other than a novice…), but upon discovery, made complete sense. We noticed that other functions on the boat were working, like the radio, gauges, and even the starter (when jumped with a wire), not to mention that the boat still floated and boasted it’s 1980 glitter, but a key component, the engine, would not start.
In ITK, we talk about problems a lot. Typically, the word “problem” can be a very positive word to us, as we spend a lot of time helping ourselves and others find, frame, and mitigate problems. The Problem Framing Canvas, for example, asks questions like “why haven’t we solved” the problem, “who experiences the problem”, “who does not have it”, and “what assumptions and biases surround this problem?” Interestingly, as I scoured the internet for an answer to my boating dilemma, I came across accounts of others with similar symptoms, though they were experiencing them with new and modern boats! Answering the question “who else has it?”, this can be helpful to narrow things down, as in this case, it led me to believe that it wasn’t a catastrophic engine failure (at least I let myself take a sigh of relief in believing so).
What Still Works?
Our problem framing canvas doesn’t really ask questions about what IS in fact still working. This isn’t necessarily the intent of the canvas, but I noticed that while diagnosing my problem, it was very helpful to note the functions of the boat that were still operating correctly, as noted earlier. Not only can it be positive and reassuring, remembering the things that ARE going right, and DON’T need fixing, but it can help narrow down the problem set, making it easier to diagnose the root cause. Maybe your team is struggling in one area but still has very strong talent, is good at their core function, and successfully brings a positive energy to their customer engagements. This could and should be celebrated!
Another tool you can use that does specifically identify “those things that are going well” is Rose, Bud, Thorn (RBT). For example, if you wanted the context of those “Roses” while you solved your problem, you could use RBT, and then trim down the “Thorns” (or problems), perhaps using a trimming tool like Stormdraining and then begin your problem framing canvas. We could call this the Not Just Problems Framing toolchain!
As ITK facilitators, we can often experience just a bit of tension as we push ourselves and others to dig deep into a situation to discover a problem. While I was trying to fix our boat, I felt feelings of frustration that my family was waiting, embarrassment that I wasn’t making any obvious progress, and discouragement that we were losing precious time on the water. Similarly, a team might feel frustrated that a customer is left without a solution, embarrassed that their team can’t seem to make decisions, and discouraged that funding, trust, and momentum might be dwindling. Perhaps it’s helpful to ask yourselves in this situation, “what is still working?” or “what are we doing right?”. As was the case with our boat, you might find that many things still work, eventually deducing that the problem is just a $1 fuse.
*Free reader tip: Read this article with headphones on, listening to something catchy. That’s how this article was written after all…*
Every decent superhero has a theme song. Some go “NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA BATMAN!” while others are more like “Call me, beep me if you wanna reach me.” To each their own, right?
As you are most certainly a superhero yourself (why else would you be reading this?), you may wonder why said musical melodies don’t sing your name when you face sudden peril, risk ridicule, or tantalize a triumphant victory as you open a kitchen drawer with your left hand while drying a dish with your right and close the dishwasher with your toes (#kitchensuperherostatusunlocked). Well, in this article’s whimsical world, let’s just assume that smooth backup vocals, brassy trumpet sections, and impromptu dance offs are a regular daily occurrence in your life.
Since you’re a superhero, you and your team also have a brand. It may be strong and intentional, or perhaps less strong and less unintentional. Said brand is more than the logo on your business card, or the letter painted on your caped blue and red spandex onesie. It’s at the core of why you your team, project, or service exists in a given context.
What does your brand look like? Are you innovative? Helpful? Dependable? Open-minded? Socially conscious? Are you growth oriented? Perhaps you have a brand you want to change. Doesn’t matter. First and foremost, you need to be aware of what your brand is. How you figure this out is a different topic for a different day. THIS DAY, however, is about that song that plays when you enter a room. It’s the key to your brand!
Let’s take a look at three techniques to establish your brand/theme song: 1) Moving the needle, 2) Rewind, and 3) Anti-Shock. First, we must set the stage.
Setting the stage
You enter the conference room, nervous about your presentation (Yes, in person…if you can remember what that felt like…). Chatting dies down and you’re introduced. Faces stare. You begin your presentation on _________(fill in the blank. “Single track trail vegetation after wildfire and regrowth???”). People seem to disengage. Energy suffers. The camera stops on your face. Your head voice starts to sing softly (like, the voice inside your head, not your head voice when trying to reach a higher pitch). Your eyes narrow into a heroic squint as lyrics fill your head, energy rising. You slam your laptop closed, slide into a stagger stance, point to the audience, and sing a powerful, head bobbing, foot stomping of a question to the first person that catches your gaze.
The room goes silent. The person stares back; timidly looks around the room. As the music begins to swell, with a rush of confidence, the person replies with a soulful wail, words expressing that they were in fact paying attention to your presentation, and only appeared passive, as they had a late-night doing housework.
You nod and tap your foot as the music backs them up. Two more join in, and soon you’re pointing to slides, kick-ball-changing to get your point across, maybe even a little jazz-hands from time to time. Choruses break out, and soon everyone is spinning their chairs in sync.
What comes next? you guessed it: You’re having a tap dance off with Terry (you didn’t know she tap danced…). Dang she’s good. Never before had such a presentation taken place in the history of conference room presentations. You call out a question and the chorus responds. You air guitar a few slide bullets and are greeted with a slew of opinionated dance styles. Suddenly, Barrie walks in the room, late, as is his brand. Everyone stops. The room stands still. A few papers float to the floor. Next thing you know, Barrie is electric sliding his way into the room and yes, a musical life dream is fulfilled. Time to pick your next technique.
1) Moving the Needle
When I was a kid, my dad had a really nice record player that we’d, on rare occasion, pull out (‘twas the era of CDs and Laserdisks. Yes, we had not one, but two Laserdisk players…which was awesome). Record needles were hard to find at that time, so we had to learn to delicately move the needle to select the songs.
I remember us playing the LP version of Kansas, Leftoverture’s “Carry on My Wayward Son” on one input, while playing the CD version on another. We’d switch inputs back and forth, determining which sounded better. May be memory bias, but I seem to remember the vinyl having more presence, warmth, and life. After all, that record had surely been played a lot, and probably had its fair share of scratches from the needle. These imperfections are what made it so special!
Establishing your brand can be a delicate process. It might take time, multiple tries, and perhaps even scratching the record a time or two. This is ok! Your team, company, product, or service likely has a diverse set of experiences, talents, and ambitions. You don’t have to get it right the first time. You may think you’ve landed on what defines your identity, and realize you were not only wrong, but on Side A when you should definitely be on Side B (tracking what I’m saying?? Pun intended. You’re welcome).
Don’t be afraid to change! Experiment! At the personal level, if your brand is based off of a lifetime of habits and behaviors, it’s ok to change! You may find that you’re a lot happier playing the deep track than you are the greatest hit that everyone knows. The deep track might have the best musicianship on the album. Do what resonates with you. At the end of the day, you’ll be happier spending your time on something that excites you. You’ll also likely bring more positive change to others by sharing your passionate energy.
Hold on, back up, what was that? I remember listening to Blues Traveler’s “Four” album. After enjoying a dose of Runaround, I discovered the 90’s blues rock, adrenaline inducing, Playing 4s example of Crash Burn. Part way through the song, John Popper breaks off in a harmonic (like, with his harmonica..) solo, followed by a competitive riptide guitar riff, followed by bass and then drums (hence, Playing 4s). My mind was blown! Rewind! Listen. Rewind! Listen. You get the picture.
If you find something that works for your brand, study it! Repeat it! Ask yourself why it works, why it energizes you, why it brings your team together, why it makes your customers adore you for your niche offering. Odds are it is a big contributor to your brand.
It might be fair to say that a large part of today’s workforce has no idea what I mean by Anti-Shock. This was a symbol of audial status in days gone by! I’m pretty sure my portable Panasonic CD player had 90 seconds of Anti-Shock. I could mow the lawn, bouncing hip pack and all, and make it through album after album without any skips or screeches emanating from my (corded) headphones. Those without anti-shock weren’t so lucky…
Similarly, your brand will exist in a challenging environment, full of bumps and skips. You may experience a brand identity crisis! A competitor offers similar services. An executive takes the company in a new direction. A key team player leaves for a new opportunity (necessitating a key change? OK OK I’ll stop…).
This or something similar IS going to happen. You may be forced to rethink your mission, vision, purpose. Your strategy might not make sense anymore. This being said, the foundational parts of your brand identity can remain strong and immovable through preparatory “Anti-Shock”. Have you empowered your team with a shared leadership model? Have you learned to celebrate failure? Have you baked in a key ingredient: Fun? These tools will provide “Anti-Shock when your brand is challenged. You may still experience jolts or skips, but your audience, the listener, may not even notice as your theme song continues to play.
Listen, Kronk got it right in The Emperor’s New Groove. He may not have called it his “brand”, but he understood the need for a theme song. Be intentional. Drink your “Gummi Berri Juice”. Write the notes down. Experiment. Scribble out what doesn’t work and write something new. Move the needle. Rewind. Establish foundational, immovable aspects of your brand identity that can withstand the shocks of change.
“All the world’s waiting for you, and the power you possess.” When you enter the room, throw your hands in the air and look boldly at those before you, for your theme song begins.
Remember the days of building a sandcastle in a sandbox, or creating a spaceship out of an old egg carton and tinfoil? These are examples of Minimum Viable Products (MVPs) and/or Prototypes!
Perhaps you didn’t have the money to buy the latest Millenium Falcon when you were a kid so you used the resources readily available to you to build something that shared the same vision: The power of space travel in the palm of your hands. This vision likely inspired others to make a similar investment, ask you how you did it, and carefully monitor the groceries brought in from the car. These same principles scale to a real-life next generation space transport, designed to carry a crew to Mars.
In the world of Agile software development, “DevSecOps”, and Design Thinking, its not uncommon to hear the terms Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Prototype. You may even hear them used interchangeably, but is this correct? Let’s take a look.
An MVP is a product with a minimized feature set, usually intended to demonstrate vision while reducing the developer’s risk. Precious resources are saved by creating a smaller set of capabilities or information. Focusing solely on providing some initial value to users allows developers to test their assumptions and demonstrate basic market viability before making significant investments of time and money.
In some circles, a prototype is a representative example of the desired end-product or service. These can be incredibly useful for demonstration, testing, and getting buy-in from stakeholders. In other circles, prototyping is used for quickly assessing the viability of an idea using lower-than-production-quality materials (ex. using a paper towel roll as a lightsaber handle …). The latter interpretation of prototyping is perhaps more in line with the intended meaning of MVP, as coined by Frank Robinson and made popular by Steve Blank and Eric Ries.
One important thing to note is that both MVP’ing and Prototyping are best done iteratively. Don’t make just one MVP or prototype. Create several, each of which builds on the lessons from the previous ones.
Depending on the environment, it can be important to note the differences. Perhaps you find yourself in an organization where the term “prototype” has centered around the shiny representative final product. If you bring up rapid prototyping to weed out various risks, you may find yourself under the proverbial pile of rotten tomatoes. On the other hand, you may need to be careful using the term MVP. Some may have bad experiences where an MVP was too “Minimum” and not enough “Viable Product,” such that it turned off potential investors.
Can your egg carton be considered a prototype? Certainly! Just remember that there may be some “Doc Browns” out there, apologizing to Marty for the scrappiness of his model of downtown Hill Valley, complete with miniature DeLorean. You may have to explain that your use of “prototype” is not the same as a production ready representative example.
Follow these links if you’d like to learn more about MVP’s and Prototypes.
Using an innovation toolkit can be difficult in a classified environment. There may be restrictions on what information can be shared, where it can be stored, and who it can be communicated with. What do you do with the notes? What if someone says something they aren’t supposed to say? Is there the right level of system access to present the appropriate slides? Are creativity and innovation inherent aspects of a culture in a classified, secure workspace?
These and other questions may be asked when considering innovating in a classified environment. The short answer is: Yes! You can certainly innovate in such an environment. It may require some creativity and flexibility to pull it off.
Let’s make up a scenario: You feel that your team isn’t considering all the alternatives for a given decision. You are aware of some ideation activities and wonder if you could facilitate an innovation activity with your team. You start thinking about the secure environment you work in. Your mind begins to fill with doubt as you ask yourself about all the hurdles you’ll have to jump over to pull this off. Questions like: Who would I invite? What level of classification would the discussion be held at? What if our notes can be compiled into an even higher classification level that the room isn’t accredited for (let alone the clearance levels of the attendees)? Is there a computer in that room with access to the network required to present certain slides? Are cameras allowed? Do I know the new security classification guide (SCG) well enough to facilitate the discussion? What will I do with all of those sticky notes and poster boards when the meeting is over? Do I need to find an official courier to get the notes to a different facility?
This may be a scenario you can relate with. It’s not easy to answer all of these questions, especially when these activities may be new to your organization. Here are a few tips for pulling this type of exercise off:
Don’t overthink it
It’s easy to overcomplicate an idea to the point of never seeing it through. If this applies to you; simplify. Sometimes, getting people in a room where they feel safe to talk about potentially unpopular ideas is half the battle. There is a first for everything and if people feel heard then the power of diverse thinking can run its course.
Set clear goals
It may require some effort to get management on board (or not, depending on the culture of your organization). An innovation workshop could pull important people from their important tasks. This is why you need to clearly communicate the goals of your meeting/workshop. This will also help you to organize and facilitate the event, as you will have a constant reminder of what you are actually trying to accomplish.
Communicate early, communicate often
In general, your leaders may not appreciate being surprised about an event they didn’t know about (and that cost them precious resources). If you think this may apply to you, communicate your idea early on. It might be wise to start with an immediate supervisor, as they may have a working knowledge of available resources, etc. Finding a champion amongst your team can also help “sell” the idea. Provide examples of similar organizations performing similar activities. You could even tie your activity into an industry-accepted activity that your organization regularly employs.
Plan for success
If you are concerned that your discussion/notes may result in classified information, plan for it. Reserve a space that can handle the highest classification level you think the conversation and/or notes may go to. Only invite people that have that access. Coordinate with your local security representative to make sure the room is ready, the people are cleared, and that you have a plan for the written material that may leave the meeting and need to be stored. If possible, invite someone strongly familiar with the SCG to give a short SCG overview. In lieu of an expert, the SCG itself should be on-hand for reference. If anything will be related to Intelligence, invite your local Intelligence representative to not only give a short presentation (e.g. a threat briefing) at the beginning of the workshop, but to participate as well.
Use appropriate tools
You may feel the need to provide high fidelity presentation, facilitation and/or note-taking material. While this can certainly be helpful (slides, markers, posters, toys, etc.), don’t let it bog you down to the point of not doing the activity at all. Getting authorization to run certain software may be a bridge too far. In addition to having a licensed copy of the software purchased and ready, there is also a need to have an authority to load and operate the software. In short, in addition to pen & paper, plan on only having the office automation applications available in the facility. If you can get some sticky notes, paper, and a handful of colored sharpies, call it a win.
Expand the buy-in
You don’t want to do this in a vacuum. Ask people how they would like to contribute. Bring in some diversity of thought. Allow people to do what they are the best at. This creates more buy-in while also having a second set of eyes review any policies or procedures you aren’t sure about.
Is it always easy to pull this off? Probably not. Still, as you try and show the fruits of your efforts, your organization could recognize the positive change and embrace similar techniques going forward.