Brokering Consensus On Failure

Brokering Consensus On Failure

This week’s post is by Gabby Raymond

My husband, Ben, and I are at that happy stage of life where we are looking to buy a house together. What started off as a joyful hobby now feels like a full-fledged part-time job full of anxiety, anguish, and frustration. Those of you who have bought a house, especially in a market as hot as Boston is right now, probably know our pain. For the unenlightened, our house buying experience has been akin to proposing marriage to someone after your first blind date – equal parts fear, excitement, and “wow, this could cost me dearly if it goes poorly.”

Since training to become an ITK facilitator, I have found plenty of opportunities to apply ITK tools to my everyday life. After a particularly stressful open house where Ben and I were debating the merits of replacing our home search hobby with a home improvement hobby, we began to worry we would never actually buy a home. Over dinner and some beer, I told Ben I wanted to try out a Premortem with him. His first response was, “Premortem, is that when you kill me before we start?” After a good laugh, I described the tool to him: we’re preemptively trying to understand what failure looks like by describing a particularly bleak future (the bleaker the better), identifying the causes, and coming to a consensus on what success looks like. Sounds easy, right?

I realized after the open house that Ben and I had done a poor job communicating our individual goals because we were too worried about disagreeing. We needed to get everything out on the table. I set us up on different computers in different rooms to use MURAL, an online whiteboarding tool, to fill out a Premortem canvas. I used MURAL’s incognito mode to make sure we didn’t bias each other’s contributions. After 10 minutes of quiet working time, we cozied up on our couch together to discuss our canvas. Right away, we confirmed something we already knew – we were both tracking to the needs, desires, and goals of the other person. However, there were a few things that were surprisingly different.

Our biggest divergence was when answering the most important question on the canvas, “If the only thing we do is ______, it’s a win.” His answer – have a place to live. My answer – make an investment. It was a great dialogue point for some of the stress and anxiety we’d each been feeling. He was worried about the stability of having a house versus being at the will of a landlord. I was concerned that after years of saving up for a down payment we would purchase a house that would go down in value and flush our investment down the drain. Neither of us had vocalized those concerns directly, so it was helpful to talk openly.

We wrapped up the Premortem canvas by describing three failure scenarios and risk mitigations. It was refreshing to go from doom and gloom to planning for future successes. After the Premortem, we took our key house features and plotted them on a Cost x Importance matrix. Just like the Premortem exercise, the differences in our answers led to great conversations about tradeoffs and compromises.

Ben and I found our whiteboarding exercise to be valuable, both because we confirmed that we agree on the important aspects of our house search and because we came to a consensus on what success looks like in the big picture. We used MURAL’s incognito mode to foster clear dialogue without the concern of compromising in the moment or biasing each other’s opinions. In the end, framing of the conversation was just as important as the content.

We haven’t bought a house yet, but we know what we’re looking for… at least a little better than we did before!


ITK & F-35

ITK & F-35

This week’s guest post is by Rick Dunham, from MITRE’s Air/Ground Surveillance Program, and it highlights a recent application of the Innovation Toolkit to the F-35 program.

Image of the MITRE F-35 Team Builds a Foundation for Success

Lead Human Factors Engineer Jessica Yu (standing) briefs F-35 Lightning II Enterprise Focus team members on using the Innovation Toolkit.

On Nov. 5-6, MITRE’s F-35 Lightning II Enterprise Focus team met in Dayton, Ohio, to build collaborative FY20 strategic foundations, covering shared-knowledge, sponsor-specific deliverables and outcomes. The diverse team, which includes more than 65 MITRE engineers from across the U.S., is charged with delivering F-35 Continuous Capability Development and Deployment (C2D2) to the field faster and more efficiently.

An Air Force Portfolio High-Profile Program, F-35 Enterprise team leads Portfolio Manager Jen Hebert and Project Leader Chris Jella—facilitated by the Innovation Toolkit Team—pioneered and challenged four main focus area groups: Reduce Live Fly; Implement Advance Capabilities; Integrate US, Partner, and International Efforts; and Modernize Mission Support and Infrastructures. The goal is to leverage and link cross-functional expertise in building shared mission-driven impactful products and outcomes.

This team-based approach and visionary mindset is why our F-35 Enterprise sponsors have come to rely on MITRE to organize work so that it magnifies the delivered capability to any one individual sponsor. By synthesizing MITRE’s internal, full-spectrum-funded research, labs, direct sponsor work, and related activities, the government pays once for a capability that benefits many sponsors and stakeholders.

MITRE F-35 Challenge Coin 500.jpgAdditionally, shared deliverables are a centerpiece of the MITRE F-35 Enterprise strategy. Each focus area group has both a set of sponsor-specific deliverables and a well-crafted outcome that contributes to a higher strategy while addressing local sponsor priorities.

This collaborative, get-to-know-you comradery structure will pay dividends, strengthening MITRE’s core excellence and service and ultimately, solving our sponsor’s most challenging C2D2 needs.


Team Toolkit’s Road Show!

Team Toolkit’s Road Show!

Hot. Muggy. Humid. Like a swamp (but not really).

Yep, I’m talking about DC summers. The time when tourists and summer interns descend en masse upon the District, and the locals grumble about these visitors mistakenly standing on the left side of the metro escalators.

But now that the kids have gone back to school, the mornings have a brisk chill, and the green trees are starting to show their first yellow leaves, it’s time for us summer lovers to accept the inevitable: Fall is coming.

With any change in seasons, it’s a prime time to reflect on the past season to savor the good moments and make course corrects for the next one.

For me, my favorite ITK summer memory was by far our “ITK DC Roadshow” to bring our Innovation Workshop to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the US Marine Corps Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity.

Based on their interest and unique requests, Team Toolkit developed a custom Innovation Workshop that took participants on a lightning round lesson on three ITK tools (Problem Framing, Value Proposition Canvas, and Culture Change Canvas). They learned how to use these tools and applied them for current problems with us there to guide them.

It was an absolute delight working with such engaged and dynamic participants: We were truly impressed by their eagerness, their hunger for innovation, and their willingness to try something different.

And we learned so much from them too! We found fellow comic makers and problem framing enthusiasts, and our own perspectives and world views were positively widened from our workshop conversations.

But the best part was the “Train the Trainer” portions of our workshop: Rather than being only a participant, we invited our audiences to also become co-conspirators of innovation by teaching them how to lead the use of these tools on their own teams without us.

Let’s let that soak in a bit… remember the saying about the man and the fish?

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Yes, that one. By teaching our audiences how to use ITK tools, and the practices and mindsets behind them, we created the first of hopefully many future cohorts of co-conspirators.

We at Team Toolkit are passionate about democratizing innovation and believe that anyone and everyone can be an innovator. We created the ITK toolkit to provide tools and a structured process to help you get there faster because helping you ultimately helps all of us.

Have a question on the ITK tools? Want an ITK Innovation Workshop at your organization? Not sure where to start but know you want to?! Contact us! We’re here to help and can’t wait to connect with you.


NASA Premortem

NASA Premortem

Last year I had the opportunity to serve on a National Academy of Sciences committee. We were chartered to help NASA improve its innovation ecosystem, a truly awesome experience. One of my main contributions was to lead several Premortem sessions, where participants imagined a future scenario where NASA has failed completely. As always, the Premortem produced several moments of insight & honesty. It continues to be my favorite tool in the kit.

If you’re not familiar with Premortems, the objective is to build clarity and consensus about what success looks like. Although a lot of the discussion is focused on describing a hypothetical failure (making the description as stark and dystopian terms as possible), the key question in the Premortem canvas is actually “If the only thing we do is ______, that’s a win.” We don’t start with that question, but I always make sure we get to it before the Premortem is complete.

Here’s a short excerpt from the National Academy committee’s report, describing the consensus these groups came to during the Premortems:

…one of the answers that popped up in all three sessions was “to build strong collaborative partnerships with industry and internationally.”


In particular, a number of session participants acknowledged that NASA is no longer the only game in town and argued that the agency’s continued presence as a relevant leader in space and aerospace will thus depend on its role as a collaborative partner rather than an independent actor. One example that a number of participants mentioned is the existence of civilian space companies such as SpaceX that are increasingly accomplishing missions that were previously done by NASA alone. As long as NASA is recognized as a valuable partner in these missions… then the agency will rightfully receive some of the credit for successes in this area.


…three main things that participants identified as being important for avoiding a dystopian future: developing strong partnerships with industry
and internationally, continuing the learning culture at NASA and building on it, and improving communication across NASA and with those outside of the agency. NASA is already doing many of these things, the session participants said, but there is room for significant improvement in each area.

If you’d like to learn more about how NASA used the Premortem and how they answered the “If the only thing we do…” question, or even if you just want to see what NASA’s senior leaders are doing to help the agency improve, check out the full National Academy committee’s report, now available as a free PDF (see the “Download Free PDF” link on the right of that page).