We recently sat down for a video chat with Michelle Histand, Director of Innovation at Independence Blue Cross. It was a lively discussion about her work at Blue Shield and the innovation toolkit she uses, enjoy this 11-minute video! Don’t miss the Assumption Busting tool she describes at 6:30, it’s terrific!
Stephanie Medicke is a Southern California transplant with an immense capacity to inspire and motivate others. Her fun outgoing nature draws people in, and her sense of humor and kindness wins them over. She is a driven leader who asks important probing questions and always encourages others to consider all possible avenues, viewpoints, and risks. She breaks down barriers and challenges assumptions while helping people find common ground. Stephanie is a positive force on Team Toolkit and in this interview we explore how she got here and shine a light on her unique perspective.
In addition to being an innovation catalyst on Team Toolkit, Stephanie is a Mechanical Engineer and Group Leader at MITRE. She is the direct supervisor of a team of engineers supporting a myriad of airborne system integration projects. She works to grow and develop her employees to reach their potential and helps develop and execute department strategy. In her technical work, Stephanie manages multiple tasks within a project, strategically organizing the work such that it amplifies the impact to the sponsors, while simultaneously meeting tactical and strategic needs for the enterprise.
What did your educational journey and career path look like?
It’s interesting to talk about career path, because I feel like I am still at the beginning of mine. In high school, I had every intention to go into psychology. I was not exactly sure what that meant, but I had a passion for learning how our brains work. I honestly didn’t think I was smart enough to become an engineer. After applying for college, I had the opportunity to visit my cousin’s mechanical engineering lab. I was accepted as a psychology major, but after that visit I knew that I wanted to change my major.
So even before I started the semester, I emailed the University of New Hampshire to see how I could transfer into the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. I figured that if I hated engineering I could always transfer out and I could continue taking psychology courses even if I switched majors, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to take engineering classes if I transferred out of the school of engineering.
The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) played a huge role in me staying in engineering. I was very active in the organization on campus and eventually became the president of SWE. When I was looking for internships, I thought I was going to go into the biomedical field, but I liked the variety that MITRE had to offer. So, I started my career at MITRE as an intern.
Based on my interest in psychology and the fact that I like working with people and teams, I knew that I would like to be a people manager. I wanted to get more involved with the people side and the business side of work, so while working at MITRE, I got a Masters of Science in Engineering Management at Tufts University Gordon Institute. I like my job because I can focus on the bigger picture, I help people get where they want to go and help the sponsors solve their problems. Airplanes fascinate me, but they don’t necessarily excite me. I love leading teams, which is something that I’ve done since the beginning of my career.
How did you get involved with ITK?
It’s a bit blurry now. I remember a few key moments like working with a startup, meeting team members, and doing the initial survey and market research of innovation tools, but I don’t remember the very beginning in much detail. What I do remember is that it was exciting in a different way than it is now.
There was a time when I was struggling to decide if I wanted to stay at MITRE. ITK satisfied my aspiration to get involved in the business side of things. I was looking for the next side project. I was so fortunate to find other people who were willing to explore intrapreneurship on their own time. I enjoyed learning from other people, learning human centered engineering and meeting new people. It was fun! I liked going out to a café with the team and talking things out. It felt like we were going to make a difference and that we were learning and growing. ITK felt dynamic and exciting when projects felt stale. It felt good to work with other excited and engaged individuals who are interested in the same things.
What first drew your interest; what keeps you involved?
I think what drew my interest at the beginning was learning more about design thinking and human centered design and getting to expand my network. What keeps me, is all of you. The friendships that we created are what keeps me involved, even more than the content and activities themselves. The impact that we are having keeps me here. The friendships are first and impact is a close second. Facilitating workshops is good, but it’s not nearly as fun as hanging out and working with the team. We not only have fun in happy hours and outside of work, but actually have a lot of fun doing the work.
How does ITK and the tools relate to your engineering work?
I’m somewhat of a facilitator on one of my projects and as a supervisor. I’m not necessarily always the one contributing technical work, but I’m helping other team members think differently about their work and improve it. I help them figure out if they are solving the right problem and help them come up with more ideas. I push the team to ensure that have explored the problem space enough and that they don’t just go with their first solution. I don’t have them fill out a canvas every day, but I do make sure that I ask the questions that are embedded in the tools. I definitely use the mindset that is embedded in the tools.
How would you characterize the impact of ITK?
First and foremost, it is about breaking down mental models and helping people think differently. These canvases are not particularly earth shattering. It’s the thought behind them and the conversations that people have while using them that are most important. People don’t always have these conversations on their own, and the tools help people think differently and provide structure, but it’s not special.
And there is a reason that it’s free to use. These are resources that should be shared and accessible by all, but we find that people are not asking these types of questions and are not having these critical conversations naturally.
One of my biggest goals on any project is having people communicate more and I think these tools help with that. We are helping people, who are not on the same page, communicate more effectively, or help them uncover hidden assumptions. Second, it’s important because we and our sponsors are so task-saturated and the problems we have are so complex. Sometimes when we get busy, we forget why we are here, what’s the purpose, and what’s the point. The tools provide the structure and the outlet to have important conversations to make sure your team is solving the right problem for the user.
This week, ITK is chatting with Daniel Hulter who we came across on LinkedIn. On separate occasions Dan Ward and I saw Daniel’s posts and were inspired to reach out and connect. One of Daniel’s recent posts asked the community about upskilling and training personnel so they can be empowered to more proactively solve problems. In addition to hosting a fantastic open discussion, we learned that Daniel is not only encouraging the larger community to make progress in this area but also works with his local base to enable, encourage, and empower personnel. His passion for empowering people and making problem solving approaches/methodologies accessible is something we at ITK feel strongly about as well so we wanted to learn more.
A: Tell us about yourself – what would we NOT be able to find on your LinkedIn profile.
Something that is likely not readily apparent on LinkedIn is the fact that I am deadly serious about what I’m sharing there. I also desperately need to find joy in my work, so I sometimes write on serious subjects in a way that amuses me. I love to laugh, but am pulled perpetually in by the gravity of realities more serious than I think most people want to face every day.
None of what I am would be possible without my wife Jessica, who has sacrificed an incredibly unfair amount to ensure that I can be functional, stay sane, and dedicate myself to the work that I care about while she battles school districts, doctors, insurance gremlins, and children, to ensure our two children can thrive to the best of their abilities. Our 14-year-old daughter Rebecca has been severely disabled since she was born. My wife has had her aspirations on hold for as long as I’ve been in the Air Force, and that lends a certain degree of gravity to me making the most of my time here. I think sometimes people wonder why I’m cranking it up to eleven with the whole ‘empowering Airmen’ routine. The truth is that having a voice and being empowered to spark change is an extremely personal cause for me. I am simultaneously more sincere and more just kidding around than I think most people realize.
A: I know you do a lot of writing and share via your own blog, what was the catalyst or genesis for starting to do this? What article do you think has resonated most with your readers?
I’ve basically always been a writer, ever since I was a little kid. My first serious foray into writing was a fiction series of about 10 books that I wrote in third grade about snakes. Each book was probably 20 pages long, and I bound them with staples myself. I think it’s safe to say my fiction game peaked early. I’m only just recently getting back into that medium.
I’ve been writing essays about leadership and ‘why I hate giving high-fives’ for some time, but really picked up the pace a few years ago when I was fighting the Air Force assignment system to not send me on a three-year unaccompanied tour while my daughter was actively dying.
At that point that I was either going to fix the assignment issue or end my Air Force career. I started writing about the difficulties I faced and the types of leadership that helped or hindered my efforts to resolve them. Having nothing to lose gave me a reason to keep pushing past gatekeepers and speaking out until the situation was resolved. I wrote about innovating policy, culture-change, and leadership. It quickly became clear that as an NCO and a life-long frustrated innovator, mine was an underrepresented voice that might hold some value.
There have been two particular pieces that really seemed to resonate with the largest number of people. The first was an essay called A Few Thoughts on Air Force Innovation, in which I shared my theory that the Air Force is pursuing innovation by facilitating competition between ideas, when a better approach would be to connect them. The second piece was an article called Keeping Off the Grass, which The Strategy Bridge published. In that article, I described a new way of looking at design and execution of our products, systems, and processes that could bring about continuous innovation and eliminate the cycle of catastrophic failure being the catalyst for change.
A: Why do you think it’s important to upskill and train personnel in more discovery-design methods?
We need to ensure that every one of our people is able to articulate the needs and opportunities they face within their own unique context. Every one of us should probe our particular adjacent-possible for avenues to evolve and innovate. Discovery, in all its various forms, is the process of probing into that dark void to feel out what’s within reach. It’s like echolocation- we can’t really see the possible futures all around us unless we’re bouncing noises off of them; and the environment is always changing, so we should really get used to never not chirping away like bats.
A: There’s no AF-wide solution for that now although I saw quite a few programs and efforts mentioned in your LinkedIn discussion. What kinds of things are you doing locally to move the ball forward? What are you currently working on or towards?
The AF is doing some exciting stuff with training specific solution-development skills into some of the workforce, like agile software development, UX design and data-science. What I discovered is that there are more basic skills in discovery and problem framing that could help Airmen everywhere shine a light within their specific context when highly technical solution development isn’t necessary.
At my last assignment, we began offering discovery, design, and scoping sessions for groups, units, and flights, bringing experience in human centered design and design-thinking, methods like Think Wrong from the company Solve Next, and other practices to facilitate discovery and solution development to whatever their need was. That effort is still going strong, and they’re proving the value of these practices in an operational setting, at multiple tiers. I’ve had the pleasure of leading small groups through workshops in which biases were circumvented, creativity stimulated, and participants connected, collided, and grew ideas collaboratively. These methods could be employed every time we gather to collaborate. Our default approaches to brainstorming, assumption mapping, prioritization, etc. simply don’t work that well.
I’m going to keep writing and pushing my ideas, hopefully luring Air Force leaders into more conversations with experts who could help facilitate the pursuit of what I’m trying to sell here. Hopefully one day I get an opportunity to do the innovation enablement stuff full-time, to help implement these ideas.
A: What is the most challenging part of your work? The most rewarding?
I’d say the most challenging part of my Air Force innovation work is that it’s not my real job. I do what the Air Force wants me to do full-time, and then when they’re not looking, I write articles, offer to facilitate discovery sessions, and host events to try and force discovery where there is no existing process.
The most rewarding part of my efforts is knowing that I’m pushing for a change that will make a big difference in a lot of people’s lives- both personally and in their missions. I’ve had the opportunity to help spark that sense of purpose and empowerment in a few young Airmen, and that’s incredibly rewarding. I always stubbornly pushed to change things despite feeling unempowered, and I got through a lot of moments where I felt too tired to keep pushing. It’s great to help others not have to deal with that.
A: What advice would you have for someone who wants to do something similar?
I think it’s so important to start with being connected. Get involved in a group like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, find the wrong-thinkers and design-thinkers on LinkedIn, follow Carmen Medina, Dan Ward, Molly Cain, and all the other government innovation nerds on LI and Twitter. Create connections with like-minded change-makers in other contexts. Become a node yourself. A community can help sustain you in the midst of your inevitable failures- keep close to those who recognize the process as valuable regardless of outcome. It can enable you to benefit from others’ failures, making success exponentially more within reach.
Besides that, my advice would be to read books, engage with a diversity of viewpoints, write, post progress, cry for help, and work out loud for the sake of discovery and so that others might discover from you.
A: Reading any great books now? Any essential reads you would recommend to folks?
I just finished Rita McGrath’s book Seeing Around Corners which I thought was wonderful. It’s mostly about discovery as a way of detecting the weak signals of incoming inflection points and how to navigate them as a business.
I’m reading a book of short stories by Kelly Link right now, as well as the John Green book Turtles All the Way Down (I’ve been listening to his amazing podcast, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” and had to check out his books). I’m enjoying both of those immensely. I’m also on my second read of Chris Beckett’s haunting sci-fi Dark Eden. I think it’s so important to read fiction. Non-fiction is all well and good, but fiction tends to better speak to the human experience. Boiling things down to theories and formulas is a way of limiting reality to make it easier to digest and navigate. That’s very useful, and can be enlightening, but the real truth is in the gross, sweaty, joyful, tragic, and mundane experiences of human beings, not in dynamical shifts measured at a distance. It’s important to mix it up. I think a lot of folks get too caught up in the language of non-fiction and it decouples them from the reality of humanity. Reality is messy and blurry, something that non-fiction often fails to capture.
My essential non-fic on the subject of innovation is in this Goodreads list. I also recently finished Dare to Lead by Brene Brown and would say that’s an essential read on leadership, along with Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. For fiction, some of my favorites are The Three Body Problem series by Cixin Liu and The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey.
A: For people who are too impatient to read and will likely scroll to the bolded, highlighted, or italicized text – what would you like them to know or walk away from this interview with?
I want people to understand how backwards we still are in our approach to management. We’re failing to train and implement some of the most important leadership competencies and cultural conditions. There is a way to be productive, innovative, fast-moving, resilient, and experience joy in our work; and our current approach isn’t the way to do it.
A: What do you think is next for you – what will Daniel Hulter 2077 be doing?
I’d like to have more time to really get some writing done. I’m barely able to get time for it right now with everything I’ve got going on. I’d really like to get to a place where I am focusing most of my energy on organizational culture and innovation-enablement. I always end up working on that stuff anyways. It would be neat if it wasn’t at the expense of what others think I’m supposed to be doing. I hope to serve out the rest of my Air Force career doing all that I can to facilitate and empower innovation at the level of execution; beyond that is yet to be discovered.
Aileen Laughlin, Lead Systems Engineer, brings a long passion for technology, innovation, and user-centered design to Team Toolkit. Her enthusiasm and wild ideas bring an electric energy to the team, so I was looking forward to chatting with her about how she got here, where she finds inspiration, and what she sees for the future of ITK.
(Military) Family Matters
Moving around a lot as an “Army brat” and growing up on military bases fostered her interest in technology and all things military. In college, she was interested in product design and the human element of technology, leading her to human factors. She landed an internship with a major contractor and that was that! After a while, she became frustrated by her inability to help users or make progress on projects (see her article on why user-experience design is so tough). She joined MITRE where she could have more direct influence and impact. Working on ITK has allowed her return to her military routes and get the Toolkit in the hands of the warfighters to unleash their innovation!
Doing something different that makes a difference
Aileen is always trying to do more UX/UCD work since many don’t get that type of support. She believes that if more people understood design as a discipline, they would eliminate a big chunk of product and system problems. For the projects and programs Aileen supports, she feels rewarded to see people recognize the value and impact that comes from UX/UCD. She finds it most rewarding to help users be heard and get what they need for their jobs. With ITK, she helps people think and work differently, tapping into their inner innovator or inventor. Witnessing people in all their creative, curious, critical thinking glory collaborating with others to solve tough problems is a thing to behold.
Aileen loves to learn and is constantly sharing her findings with the team. She reads about what’s happening in the DoD (“These are exciting times!”) and technology, since it’s an interest of hers. On projects, she always want to know more about the context, landscape, or what’s new, sending her down the Google rabbit hole. Aside from Googling, she uses news aggregator apps, tagging topics of interest.
Admittedly obsessed with DIUx (now DIU) when former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the organization, Aileen was interested in getting MITRE involved. Understanding the user and understanding the problem is such a major part of any innovation venture. As she was looking across industry at innovative organizations that leverage the brain power of all their work force, she came across innovation toolkits.
A common theme in her research was the importance of tailoring toolkits for your group’s problems, organization, domain, and culture. Since MITRE and our sponsors are much more mission-driven, she was concerned terminology from a profit-driven company would reduce adoption and confuse users. Aileen reiterated the need to strike a balance between being respectful of people’s comfort zones while finding gentle ways to push them out of them.
Show, don’t tell
When asked about the best way to get people outside their comfort zones, Aileen recommended the “show, don’t tell” approach. She used bodystorming on one of her projects, where users brainstorm and work through a design using physical props. She explained in advance to her team that they’d move boxes around to find the ideal position for equipment. She could tell some people thought she was crazy when she arrived with labeled, duct-taped cardboard boxes matching the dimensions of different hardware. But once they packed into the truck and started moving the boxes around, people recognized the goodness. Find an instance where just doing things can make people believers.
Bodystorming is her favorite tool in the kit because it forces people to walk through something in its entirety. When people start to put an idea or concept through its paces, they can see where it starts to fall apart or maybe what might have been overlooked.
Challenging the status quo
Aileen’s innovation style? Nothing’s too wild + let’s just do it. With a “how can I make it better?” mentality, she has ideas coming and going all day. When she feels strongly about an idea, she want to execute right away before the fire is gone and something else catches her attention. She loves running her ideas by people – finding it eye-opening, informative and helpful to see things from another perspective. By the time an idea’s made its way through Team Toolkit, it’s evolved into something way more awesome.
She attributes culture change to finding the people in a group who are willing to question the status quo and ask questions. Aileen sees individuals as the catalyst for change and sees more people asking: “why do we keep working this way?” when there are better options. ITK methods can help you and your co-disruptors continue to ask some of those important questions. If you’re not sure how to start, Aileen recommends reaching out to someone on the team! Connecting with new, different people is oftentimes an undervalued part of innovation – so start with Team Toolkit.
Aileen’s dream for ITK is for people to feel empowered to use ITK on their own. That they adopt, adapt, and grow the toolkit for their needs and this creative, collaborative, critical thinking approach to problem solving becomes the new normal. Her vision for the future of ITK? Digging into the next set of really hard problems while eating 3D-printed failure cake on Mars.