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!
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 shoot an email to Team Toolkit at ITK@mitre.org 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!
The Lotus Blossom ideation tool is one of the most popular in the toolkit, and it’s also one of the simplest. This is a great way to help a team quickly come up with a large quantity of high quality ideas, in a format that is structured, binned, and categorized. A complete Lotus Blossom, with all the petals filled in, can be a really useful artifact for the team to refer to as the work progresses.
But don’t let the simplicity of the tool fool you. There are some subtle nuances and non-obvious applications & implications hidden in this tool, and it can be a challenging one to use well. Let’s take a closer look at some common patterns and missteps.
When a team is filling out a Lotus Blossom I often notice that one blossom has a lot of blank petals while another is fully populated or even overstuffed with more than eight. As a facilitator I like to direct the team’s attention to the blank blossom and encourage them to explore that idea in more depth. Is there a reason we’re not filling that one out? Is it a good reason?
I might also point out that if we’re focusing (and overfilling) on one blossom, that might indicate a high level of interest in that area so it’s worth pursuing, maybe even using it as the core for a whole new Lotus Blossom canvas. Alternatively, all those ideas might indicate a high level of comfort & familiarity with that topic. Maybe we’re only filling it in so completely because it’s easy to do so. If that’s the case, perhaps we should move on and do the more challenging work of exploring less familiar ground. Either course of action is fine – the trick is to be deliberate in our decision to either pursue it or pivot.
Another thing to watch for is the phrase “I have this idea but I’m not sure where to put it in the Lotus Blossom.” Now, the point of this tool is to develop ideas that are connected to each other. If the team is just coming up with random unconnected ideas that genuinely don’t fit into any of the petals or blossoms, they are just brainstorming and not really using the Lotus Blossom tool. In that case, I try to redirect them towards the empty petals and blossoms that do have labels, encouraging them to build on these ideas by getting more specific and granular.
But sometimes the phrase “I’m not sure where to put this” means you’ve come up with an idea that genuinely fits in multiple places. If that’s the case, it’s possible you discovered a relationship between the ideas that is not currently reflected in the Lotus Blossom layout. At this point you may want to rearrange and combine the related ideas into a single blossom. This is easier to do with a digital canvas than it is on paper, of course.
Another strategy for the “not sure where to put it” situation is to label one of the blossoms OTHER and put all the random stuff there. It’s not optimal, but this strategy can serve as a useful parking lot or holding place for ideas that may find a more connected home later.