Announcing Our Book!

Announcing Our Book!

Today’s post is by Allison Khaw!

Can a diverse group of seven engineers and designers write a book?  Can they write a book about innovation, teamwork, and problem solving, in a collaborative fashion, while working in a virtual environment?

The answer is yes.

In fact, that’s exactly what seven of us on the MITRE Innovation Toolkit team did this past year!  Fresh off the press, our book is called The Toolbox of Innovation, and we—Jen Choi, myself (Allison Khaw), Gabby Raymond, Dan Ward, Kaylee White, Niall White, and Jessica Yu—couldn’t be more excited to share it with the world.

As the first line of the book says, it was an experiment.  We didn’t know how our book would turn out, or if it would turn out.  There was only one way to know the answer, and that was to sit down and start putting words on the page.

We used a writing style similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that were popular in the eighties and nineties, except that we placed our characters in a real-world setting.  You—the reader—are the protagonist of the story, which revolves around a passionate team applying innovation methods to develop a product that will delight its users.  Depending on the path you take through the book, you’ll learn about intrapreneurism, self-advocacy, problem framing, prototyping, failure, and more.  If you encounter a dead-end in your current path, simply turn around and make a different choice.

Throughout the writing process, we focused on ways to be more collaborative and creative.  We took on the scenes we were most passionate about, learning firsthand that messy first drafts are inevitable.  We edited each other’s scenes without feeling like we needed permission.  As our book took shape, we incrementally built our cast of characters and mapped out the myriad plot threads.  We also learned about self-publishing and the effectiveness of fiction in teaching real-world lessons.  Ultimately, it was an exercise in shared leadership as well as a refreshing opportunity to embrace risks.

It was an incredibly rewarding experience, in more ways than one.

One of my favorite parts of our book is its playful nature.  You’ll find scenes involving Bigfoot, failure cake, juggling, and alternate endings, not to mention a suspiciously large number of potato chip references.  (You’d think we were sponsored by a snack food company—nope, our characters just really like chips!)  Each of the co-authors brought a different perspective to the table, and we’ll be finding ways to share our experiences and lessons learned, starting with this blog post.  We want to help you perform your own experiments, in all their glory.

Now, what are you waiting for?

If you want to find out more, go to The Toolbox of Innovation
If you are undecided, mull it over and then re-read the previous line
When you’re ready, turn to the first page of the book, and take the story where you will.  It’s your adventure, after all—you get to call the shots.

Deleting Disposable Drafts

Deleting Disposable Drafts

Can I tell you a secret? For every post I publish here, there’s at least half a dozen you’ll never see.

I’m not just talking false starts, where I have a stub of an idea that ends up not going anywhere. I’m talking about whole posts on topics that don’t quite land, don’t cohere, don’t resolve into anything worth sharing. Even though I am a pretty experience writer, the truth is I write a TON of worthless stuff that (appropriately!) never sees the light of day.

And it’s not just crummy first drafts. I actually spend a fair amount of time editing, revising, and reworking material, in the hopes of creating something useful… before quietly setting it aside and starting over with a blank page.

The thing is, I can never tell whether a post is going to be worth sharing until I write it. An idea might look promising at the start, but only reveal its true value (or lack thereof) once it’s gone through a few versions. For that matter, the idea itself might not be terrible, but my ability to express the idea comes up short. That probably means I don’t really understand the idea very well. Or maybe it means I need to more sleep, more coffee, or less screen time.

The funny thing is, this willingness to create bad work and then dispose of it seems to be the secret to doing things well. Not just in terms of blog posts, but all sorts of other endeavors. When I give myself permission to create badly – and permission to toss away the results of that work – I find myself in a more creative and productive mindscape. I am free to play, to noodle around, to explore and experiment, because the pressure is off. If the thing I’ve created isn’t very good, nobody ever has to know. I can just delete it and try again.

And yes, 6 times out of 7 the result is… pretty bad. Which is precisely as expected, and that’s ok. But every once in a while a flower grows in that pile of manure. Not in spite of the bad drafts – because of them. I’m sharing this story as an invitation to give yourself permission to play, to make bad art, to delete your disposable drafts… and to keep going. You may also want to get a Star Trek bathrobe, but that’s not required.

Innovation Tool Kit (ITK): It Really Does Work!

Today’s post is by Lynne Cuppernull, one of our new members of the ITK community, plus a brief interlude by Jim Jellison

Last September, about 80 MITRE leaders in the Health FFRDC participated in a two-hour introduction to the Innovation Toolkit (ITK)—a collection of methods and techniques curated by a team of cross-disciplinary MITRE experts to help teams work together to solve hard problems.  A lot of leaders learned about the tools, but did anyone DO anything with them? You are about to find out!

Charity Begins at Home, With a Pre-Mortem!

I figured I’d better be able to do what we were asking our leaders to do. So I tested out a couple of tools with some internal teams. The leadership team in my department took the Pre-Mortem tool for a spin. Just like it sounds, the Pre-Mortem involves what may come before a “death” – in this case, our department utterly and totally failing. By imagining failure, we were able to effectively land on what success would look like for us a year from now and we actually had fun imagining the utter failure (once we were able to stop hyperventilating over the perceived failures, which were pretty epic).

We also tried using the Rose, Bud, Thorn tool as a quick way to assess our weekly division leadership team meetings and came up with good ideas about how we could use the time more effectively. I love the Rose, Bud, Thorn tool because it is so easy, and you can use it with anything or anyone (including kids). It’s a simple framework that helps a group conduct an analysis by visually categorizing the positive (Rose), potential (Bud), or negative (Thorn) aspects of a topic, such as a system, product, process, meeting – you name it.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: ITK and Sponsor Conversations

The tools worked well for us internally – but would our sponsors appreciate them? We enlisted the help of Dan Ward, one of the ITK originals, to work with us to plan a conversation with our sponsor to ensure we really understood the problem the sponsor had. Enter Dan and the Problem Framing canvas to help us work with the sponsor to understand more about the most critical problems facing this agency. We knew our sponsor worked best with a few thoughtful questions, so we tuned the ITK tool to simplify it for our discussion with the sponsor. Some of the questions we asked, in addition to “What is the problem?” were:

  • Who has this problem?
  • When and where do they experience it?
  • What are the elements of the problem (physical, social, emotional, professional)
  • What is the scope (small to big, trivial to serious, static to dynamic)
  • Who else has it? Who does not have it and why not?
  • Why haven’t we solved it?

Not only did we come up with one problem statement in our one-hour meeting with the sponsor, we came up with two, which we then used to frame out a couple of discussion documents with approaches, that became our next conversation with the sponsor.

ITK in the Real World: CDC and CODI

Hoping I was not alone, in late October I put out a call to all the people who attended the two-hour ITK sessions in September to see if others had tried the tools yet. It turned out some people had – yay!

Jim Jellison was one of the few brave people who went right to using an ITK took on a health data project. In his words, here is how it went:

Program: We are  integrating data from clinical electronic health record systems with data collected by community-based organizations that deliver programs and services for chronic disease management.

Goal: The idea is to improve data capabilities for both evaluating disease intervention programs and conducting public health surveillance. The work involves partnerships between healthcare providers, CBOs, national associations, and other stakeholders that have influence in the locations we are conducting pilot implementations.

Problem statement: It’s the first time these partners are coming together to create this type of data exchange and there are many ways things could go wrong.

ITK in action: To identify some of those risks and build trust among this nascent partnership, we worked with the ITK team to conduct a Pre-Mortem exercise. I was intrigued with the tool yet wary of making the sponsor nervous by discussing failure. We vetted the concept with them in advance and they were game. With the ITK team facilitating the exercise, the MITRE project team was able to participate as another member of the partnership.

Results: To my relief, the session was well received. Our partners’ concerns, or what they thought failure might look like, highlighted the prospect of implementing functional data exchange but not generating useful information or sustainable infrastructure for our partners. Perhaps more importantly, by giving colleagues (and ourselves) permission to be skeptical and candid we strengthened the collaborative relationships we’ll need for this project.

Back to Lynne Cuppernull…

My hope, as we head into 2021, is that we can expand our use of these simple and effective tools across the Health FFRDC, using them with each other and with our sponsors to solve hard problems.

I am finishing up being “certified” as an ITK user and coach for others and I would love for more people to become certified too. Just fill out Contact form if you are interested. But you do not have to be certified to use the tools! Just willing to experiment and be open to new ways of doing things, like brainstorming.

We would love to hear more examples of how people have used the ITK tools–what worked, what didn’t, what you modified. Please let us know in the comments – and we will keep the information flowing about the tools!



Building Your Cadre of Mentors

Building Your Cadre of Mentors

(Today’s post is by Gabby Raymond, one of our new Team Toolkit Trainees!)

Finding a good mentor is like getting a personalized self-help book, one that is full of insightful questions and practical guidance tailored to you. A traditional mentor focuses on guiding your personal growth. However, you can receive a wide array of guidance from a variety of perspectives when you work together with someone, so let’s expand our vocabulary a bit and use the word Collaborators as a more general term.

Just like you wouldn’t need five copies of the same self-help book, it’s useful to have different types of Collaborators, each playing a different role. The alignment chart below illustrates a variety of Collaborators based on the people I have found particularly valuable in my life. The goal of this diagram is to help you identify any gaps in your current cadre and opportunities to round out your group. And the best part, meeting up with one of these Collaborators only costs about as much as a cup of coffee! (usually)

In this chart, the horizontal axis reflects the Collaborator’s relationship to you; your peers are on the left while those with more seniority, formal authority, or clout are on the right. The vertical axis depicts the Collaborator’s perspective on guidance. The guidance you get from people at the top of the vertical axis helps you with personal growth, while the guidance from people at the other end of the axis helps you solve problems or champion solutions.

When I think of a traditional mentor, I think of an Advocator in the upper right quadrant. As someone with clout who can help you grow career-wise, they’ve been in your shoes and can give you advice. Advocators also know other authority figures with whom they can share your accomplishments; they’re the Collaborator who can help you get your next promotion. I find advocating for yourself and having others advocate for you is an important way to gain visibility in your community.

In the upper left side is the Friendtor, a peer who you trust to give more personal advice. They walk the line of friend and mentor, so they know all the best things about you but can also point out your flaws. I personally ask my Friendtors for advice on team dynamics and navigating conversations with my leadership.

An Educator straddles the line in the lower left quadrant. They are someone with specific domain knowledge about the problem you’re trying to solve. An Educator’s role is to teach you skills or information relevant to your work and are the Collaborator you’re most likely to shadow. I’ve found Educators to be closer to a peer than an authority figure, but that’s not always the case.

An Innovator is a Collaborator who is a problem-solving powerhouse, and they span the whole bottom half of the chart. Innovators can either have a background in your problem area or can be someone with a fresh perspective – both mentalities can be incredibly useful depending on your situation. People who embody the mindset of Team Toolkit are my go-to Innovators.

Solidly in the lower right Authority/Champion quadrant is the Accelerator – think of them as someone who will help catapult your idea. They’ve got high-powered connections and stay up to date with the current trends. The strategic prowess of an Accelerator means they are the ones who can help develop and refine your idea. These Collaborators are moving quickly from success to success and can help you do the same.

Finally, at the center of this chart is a person with a wide network, the Connector. They’re the Collaborator who seems to know everyone. Having a Connector introduce you to someone they know personally is often more successful than cold-emailing someone with whom you want to grab a virtual coffee. They can be your gateway to many of the other Collaborators in this chart.

I hope this post has helped you view mentors through a new frame of reference. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out and grab a virtual cup of coffee (or tea!) with me.



Dept of Defense Entrepreneurs learn about Premortem and Culture Change

Dept of Defense Entrepreneurs learn about Premortem and Culture Change

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF)’s mission is to promote a culture of innovation in the national security community, and Project Agitare is a group of DEF Facilitators who are passionate about putting innovation, design, and discovery skills, tools & methods into the hands of individuals across the Defense community.

When their founder, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Daniel Hulter, invited Team Toolkit to present in a training workshop, it was a no brainer for Team Toolkit to connect with fellow co-conspirators for innovation! Jen Choi and Rachel Gregorio introduced two MITRE-unique tools, the Premortem and Culture Change Canvas, that every organization should keep in their back pocket. Check out the full recording here!

Project Agitare aims to further the vision to enable innovation in the Department of Defense, by introducing a type of social technology that they call facilitated discovery. If you’d like to learn more or get involved, check out Project Agitare’s page on the DEF site.

(PLAIN LANGUAGE DISCLAIMER: we’re providing the link so you can learn more about Agitare, but it’s not an official MITRE endorsement or anything like that)

Janet & Morgan Bake A Cake

A purple and a red cartoon character, with word bubbles that say Janet & Morgan Bake A Cake, starring Janet and MorganIn this week’s post, we’re going to learn a lesson about how to be helpful from ITK’s friendly neighborhood comic characters, Janet & Morgan!

The comic is titled Janet & Morgan Bake A Cake, and it continues the topic discussed in our July 6th post, titled How To Be Helpful (in 5 Questions). The difference is, this time it’s in comic form… and there’s a cake!

Click the link to read the whole thing. We hope you enjoy it and share it with your friends.