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! 

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


Have you taken your daily dose of Innovator’s Vitamin “C”: Creativity, Curiosity, and Courage?

Have you taken your daily dose of Innovator’s Vitamin “C”: Creativity, Curiosity, and Courage?

The Innovator’s Vitamin C is essential for any Innovator who is looking to create change and disrupt the status quo. Having ample stores of creativity, curiosity, and courage not only encourages innovation, but also buffers and boosts Innovators during difficult times.

– – –

Ah, summertime. The season of sunny skies, warm temperatures, and for fellow ocean lovers, the regular pilgrimage to the coastline to fill up on much-needed Vitamin “Sea”.

Although mountain and countryside enthusiasts may not understand, plunging oneself into the cool saltwater is a literal refresh that provides invigoration and renewed energy. Experiencing the moon’s gravitational pull via the changing tides reminds us that there are unseen forces larger than us, which invites a valuable shift in perspective. Science has even shown that when humans look out at the ocean, this activates our “blue mind” and triggers a calming effect. Ask any ocean lover, and they will tell you how critical this Vitamin Sea is for their wellbeing.

Of course, Vitamin Sea is a play off of the term Vitamin “C,” which is an essential nutrient for human health. Without Vitamin C, our bodies weaken, our limbs degrade, and our smiles worsen. In extreme cases, a lack of Vitamin C can even become fatal (remember all those 18th century sailors who suffered from scurvy?).

But this is a blog about innovation, so let’s get to the point: Vitamin Sea is not the only metaphorical Vitamin C that’s out there… Have you heard of the Innovator’s Vitamin “C”?

The Innovator’s Vitamin C is comprised of three essential characteristics:

  1. Creativity
  2. Curiosity
  3. Courage

Creativity is our ability to produce or use original ideas[i].

Given that Team Toolkit’s straightforward definition of Innovation is “novelty with impact” and that “novelty” means something new or original, then the ability to create or use something original is a must for an Innovator. Creativity is a critical prerequisite for innovation. 

Curiosity is an eager wish to learn or know something[ii].

When we are eager to learn about the world around us, we start paying attention. This attention leads us to observations and problem-spotting. We’ll also start seeing opportunities for something new to be created or for something to be used in a different way. These scenarios are the gateways to innovation, and curiosity compels us to keep going, to keep digging deeper until the learner in us is satisfied.

Curiosity is also a powerful tool for shifting our mindsets. When situations do not go as we expect or our new effort fails, we can use curiosity to shift from a negative, blaming mindset into a more constructive, learner’s mindset. Rather than investigating “Who did wrong?” and fault-finding, curiosity prompts us to ask, “How might we have done this differently?” so that we can learn from our mistakes and improve for next time.

Courage is the ability to control your fear in a difficult situation[iii].

Bringing forth an innovation inherently requires change since it introduces novelty. However, humans are biologically predisposed to resist change which means that when we’re introducing our innovative idea or solution for the first time, our audience’s default mode isn’t exactly to embrace it.

This is where calling upon our courage becomes critical, and courage is what differentiates the innovators from the armchair dreamers. Innovators are aware of their fear, but they’re not halted by it. Instead, we tap into our courage to persevere and bring forth the change we want to see in the world.

Creativity, curiosity, and courage are a must for innovators.

Our bodies cannot naturally produce Vitamin C, so we must consume it via external means such as pineapples, oranges, and other citrus fruits. Similar to true Vitamin C, the Innovator’s Vitamin C may not be something we naturally produce or have abundant stores of.

Fortunately, there are many practices and exercises that can help us cultivate these characteristics of creativity, curiosity, and courage (stay tuned for more blog articles on this!). By creating a daily practice of “taking” our Innovator’s Vitamin C and regularly practicing these exercises, eventually these characteristics will become habitual and our default attitudes.

Creativity, curiosity, and courage are a must for innovators, so set yourself up for innovation success and take your daily Innovator’s Vitamin C!


[i] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/creativity

[ii] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/curiosity

[iii] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/courage

Introducing Innovation: When to keep going and when to quit?

Introducing Innovation: When to keep going and when to quit?

Q: Team Toolkit, I really want to bring innovation into my organization but I have NO co-conspirators and my organization is the opposite of flat, it’s practically a dictatorship! My attempts at introducing innovation have been failing and I’m really demoralized; when do I know it’s time to just give up and quit?

A: Oy, we feel your pain anonymous audience member and are sending you lots of extra aloha. This is a very difficult position to be in, and unfortunately, we’ve all been there too at various points in our careers.

One constructive way to move forward in this type of scenario is to find an abstract situation where our struggle is no longer at the center of the story. This creates space for different perspectives, and thus new insights, that can inspire the next right action.

While each situation is unique, here’s an analogy that may help you identify the next right move…

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Analogy time: Let’s become an acorn

Photo of an outstretched hand with an acorn

Photo credit: Caleb Lucas

Acorns are amazing. When properly planted, this tiny acorn can grow into a massive oak tree, with huge branches overhead and deep roots down below. This oak tree could live not just for hundreds, but tens of thousands, of years!

An acorn has so much potential, but in order for it to take root and thrive, there is a very critical set of requirements: The acorn must be planted in soil, watered, and receive sunlight.

Let’s imagine three scenarios of how this acorn could be planted:

    1. Nature. A squirrel finds the acorn during the fall, buries it deep in the ground, then has a squirrel moment and forgets where it is. This leaves the acorn to hibernate during the winter, and it begins naturally sprouting during spring alongside other new plants.
    1. Nursery. A nursery gardener finds the acorn during the fall, plants it into a large pot, then carefully waters and grows it into a small tree in their nursery’s greenhouse. This potted tree is then sold by the nursery, where it’s delivered to a different state and planted into a new landscape.
    1. Transplant. A home gardener finds the acorn during the fall, plants it into a large pot, then places it in the dark corner of their garage and forgets about it over winter. The potted acorn remains in the dark garage during the spring and summer.

Using these three scenarios, it’s clear that our acorn has the best chance of becoming a full oak tree in Scenario 1 and 2. Scenario 2 may be more risky since the small tree may not take root after being planted in the new landscape. However, we know that our acorns are set up for success in both scenarios because they at least received the dirt, water, and sunlight that they need to transform into a tree.

Unfortunately in Scenario 3, our acorn was not set up for success and did not receive 2 of the 3 critical requirements for transformation. Without water and sunlight, no matter how good the dirt is, this acorn will never become an oak tree.

Back to reality: Why did we become acorns and how does that help me?

This acorn represents your fresh ideas and innovative approaches that you are trying to introduce into your organization. There is no doubt that there is lots of potential here, but as we saw in the analogy, the environment determined the future of this acorn – whether it would receive what it critically needed to transform: dirt, water, and sunlight.

Similarly, your organizational environment will determine whether your fresh ideas and innovative approaches will receive what it critically needs to flourish: Fellow teammates and some initial funding or go-ahead. You’ve done all that you can do as an individual, and now it’s time to consider your organizational environment:

Is your organizational environment like Scenario 1 where you have the right conditions, but need to wait for the right time? Are your ideas hibernating during a winter period, and a future leader or champion will create the conditions of spring?

    • If yes, then patience and a mindset shift could be a great next move. Instead of thinking “Innovation is never going to happen here!”, try thinking “I’m waiting for a better time to introduce innovation.”
    • Check out our other ITK blog post on the importance of attitude for more tips!

Or is your organizational environment like Scenario 2 where the conditions for your ideas to truly thrive and take root may exist elsewhere? Is your organization not the “final” place for where your ideas can truly take off?

Or is your organizational environment like Scenario 3 where no matter what you do, you’re not going to get those critical elements for success? Is your organizational structure inherently inhibiting innovation?

    • If yes, then it may be time to consider an alternative path… and that will definitely require much more than one blog post.
    • In this case, reaching out to your trusted mentors for realistic advice unique to your scenario could be a great next move.

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Hopefully this acorn analogy helped you identify the next right action for your situation, and for those who have also experienced this, leave us a comment below for other tips or actions that have helped you!