The ITK Tool Development Process

The ITK Tool Development Process

As MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit continues to evolve and mature, we’ve been reflecting on how we create new tools (and update existing tools). The short version is we do it iteratively. For the longer version… read on!

Most of the tools you see on our website are actually version 7 or version 15 or version 382. The point is pretty much all of them went through considerable modifications on their way to the version you see on the website.

Except maybe the Lotus Blossom. Pretty sure that one popped up fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Aside from that single exception, all the other tools are the result of an ongoing series of prototypes and experiments. Sometimes we’ve even used one tool to develop another tool… then updated the first tool based on our experience developing the second one. It gets pretty meta around here sometimes. While that may sound a bit convoluted, we actually have a pretty straightforward way of describing the tool development process. It’s built around a theater / tv show metaphor, and it goes something like this:

An idea for a new tool starts in the Café, where one or two people begin sketching out a rough idea and produce an initial incomplete draft. Maybe they have a casual chat with someone at the next table over, or maybe they have their headphones on as they draw and sketch and write. In Broadway terms, this is where Lin-Manuel composes that first rap and starts laying out the overall structure of Hamilton.


Alexander Hamilton

Next, we move to the Writer’s Room. This is where a group gathers to co-create the tool and further develop it from the Café version. They play with phrases and formats, identify and address gaps in the tool. The idea is for the initial instigator to bring in some collaborators who help transform the incomplete idea into the first complete draft. In the world of musical theater, this might be where a lyricist brings in a composer (or vice versa), or a writer brings in a co-author.

Next is a special type of casual rehearsal called a Table Read, where we test a basic version of the tool with people who weren’t involved in creating it. The point here is to invite new perspectives & contributors. To use Hamilton terms again, this is where Leslie Odom Jr shows up and the writers get to see how the lines actually sound when the actor says them (and continue to rewrite the lines based on that observation & discussion).

Eventually we get to the Dress Rehearsal, where a complete version of the tool is used in a closed environment, to really put it through its paces… without an audience. Unlike the table read, in our dress rehearsal our focus goes beyond the tool itself and now includes facilitation techniques and logistics. In our theater metaphor, this is where the script is basically locked down and the director confirms the lighting, blocking, and choreography.

Then we come to Opening Night, the first time the tool is used with an external group, sponsor, etc. This is still an opportunity to test & evaluate & modify the tool, so we’re all watching and taking notes about changes to make in the next version.

The Full Run means the tool is field-tested, polished, and proven. We might make some small tweaks at this point, adjust the choreography slightly or make little tweaks to the dialogue, but by now the thing is pretty much solid & we can do 8 shows a week. As an added bonus, the understudies get opportunities step on stage… and the writer goes back to the café.

As you see, like a Broadway show, developing a new ITK tool is generally an iterative, collaborative process. One person can instigate and take a certain degree of ownership for a tool, one person can shepherd it through the whole process, pick co-authors and hold own auditions, etc. But nobody has to write / produce / sing / dance / etc in a one-person performance. There are plenty of people available to lend a hand and help transform the spark of an idea into a big hit…

The Barriers Petal

The Barriers Petal

No two Lotus Blossoms sessions are alike, because that particular tool is designed for maximum flexibility and broad applicability. You can do a Lotus Blossom around a problem statement or to explore solutions. You can use it to design an organization, outline a research paper, or define a business process. I’ve even been known to plan out my New Year’s Resolutions in a Lotus Blossom. The options truly are endless, and so is the variety.

But for all the different ways to use a Lotus Blossom, there is one consistent practice I apply almost every time. It’s a particular petal that seems to fit every situation, regardless of topic or situation. I call it… the Barriers Petal.

It’s a pretty simple concept – just write the word Barriers in one of the petals around the central blossom. I tend to use the lower-left petal of the central blossom, for no particular reason other than that box tends to be available. Plus, having a consistent location helps me remember to do it.

Oddly, one of the things I like about this is the way this brings a slightly negative tone to the conversation, an off note to the composition. While the rest of the blossoms are typically full of possibilities and sparkly ideas, the Barriers blossom helps us anticipate the things that might undermine our plans or interfere with our goals.

This contrast sends a subtle signal to go beyond the obvious, front-of-mind ideas, and to dig a little deeper. Plus, virtually every topic has some sort of barriers associated with it, and it’s better to think about them and anticipate them in advance than to be surprised when one smacks us in the face.

Introducing the new ITK Stakeholder Identification Canvas!

Introducing the new ITK Stakeholder Identification Canvas!

Learn more about ITK’s newest tool and the equity lens embedded in it.

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As part of Team Toolkit’s collaboration with the MITRE Social Justice Platform, we are excited to announce the addition of a new tool – the ITK Stakeholder Identification Canvas!

The ITK Stakeholder Identification canvas helps your team ideate a more comprehensive & representative set of relevant stakeholders to your project. In addition, this tool embeds an equity lens to help your team be mindful of the needs and priorities of the larger community, which may not be immediately apparent.

As a refresher, recall that equity-driven design thinking encourages us to create not just inclusive and diverse solutions, but to create equitable solutions. Equitable solutions are available to all (e.g., equal access), and they also help equalize who benefits from the solution (e.g., many groups benefit, not just one).

Equity-driven design thinking helps ensure we design at the margins or at the “edge,” where those with the greatest need exist. These are the groups who are left out because they don’t have a seat the table, a voice, and/or the means to advocate for themselves.

For example, edge groups may not have power or resources; they may represent only a small portion of the overall set and are not included in the “average audience”; and/or the project doesn’t engage with them because the project team believes there isn’t enough time if they want to meet project deadlines. It’s critical to include these edge groups because not only does their inclusion often yield a better solution for many, it’s also often the case that these edge groups are the ones most likely to suffer the greatest burden or consequences of inequitable design.

So, what happens if your team is looking at the wrong “edge”? What if your team thinks they’re designing at the margin, but there’s actually more groups they should be considering?

That’s where the ITK Stakeholder Identification canvas comes in!

The ITK Stakeholder Identification canvas encourages teams to broaden their thinking by asking not only about primary stakeholders, but also about secondary and tertiary stakeholders. This helps teams build a more comprehensive set of groups to consider.

Potential secondary stakeholders could be groups that play a connector role. These stakeholders could be gate keepers, or they might provide permission, resources, or access to enable (or block) your project’s success. And of course, it’s critical for the team to identify the actual audience of focus that will receive the outcome or benefit that your project seeks to create, which may be a different group than your primary stakeholders.

In addition, the embedded equity lens asks teams to consider potential tertiary stakeholders that may be even less visible. In the “Build Empathy” section, teams are asked to consider who or what will be benefitted or burdened. This section also asks teams to consider who or what may be missing, with a sub-prompt to also consider historical actions. By asking about “what,” rather than only “who,” this expands the set of potential stakeholders to include organizations, communities, ecosystems, the environment, and more. Oftentimes, answering these questions will further broaden your team’s thinking to consider systemic and intergenerational impacts.

Lastly, it wouldn’t be an equity-centered tool if there wasn’t at least one question about biases. Fortunately, this tool has 3!

The “Notice Bias & Assumptions” section includes three prompts to encourage honest self-awareness on the team about how their perspectives may be limited or non-representative of the audience of focus. Answering these questions will also help identify if there are gaps in the stakeholder set, which means there is further information gathering or research that needs to be completed by the team.

The ITK Stakeholder Identification canvas is best used early in the process, but it’s an important step whenever you need to consider who or what is involved, interested, or impacted by your project. For true project success, it’s essential to consider and involve not only those who are actively involved in your project, but also those whose interests may be positively or negatively affected by your effort.

Get your copy of the ITK Stakeholder Identification canvas here. We hope you find it useful, and let us know what you think in the comments below!

Interested in learning more about other ITK tools with an embedded equity lens?

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!


Mise En Place

Mise En Place

If you’ve ever watched an instructional cooking show, you have probably seen the chef or host say something along the lines of “Now we add two tablespoons of cinnamon…” as they reach for a small conveniently placed bowl that contains just the right amount of the necessary ingredient.

What you don’t see is the production assistant hunting through cupboards and measuring out all the ingredients before the camera starts rolling. The prep work is the essential step that makes those shows watchable and makes the recipes look a lot easier and faster than they are in my kitchen.

Those little bowls of pre-measured ingredients are part of a culinary technique called mise en place, which is French for “everything in its place.” It turns out, mise en place does more than make cooking shows easier to watch. It can also make your ITK session more effective.

A seeded Lotus Blossom

For example, when I’m preparing to lead a Lotus Blossom session, I might fill in a few of the boxes to get things started, like in the accompanying image. Think of it as a seeded lotus blossom. This helps accelerate the discussion in several ways. First, it demonstrates how to use the tool by providing some examples of the types of things participants might put in the various petals.

It also begins to plant some ideas and gives the group a starting point. I don’t fill in much – usually just two or three petals, enough to convey the basic practice and to help get the conversation started.

And of course, if any of the seed ideas are worth keeping, then we’ve already got some materials before the session formally starts.

Similarly, when I lead a Premortem, I like to do a little pre-Premortem. I’ll go through the canvas and answer some of the questions a few days before the event begins, maybe with the organizer of the event. If the group organizer has not done a premortem before, this gives me a chance to explain it to them in advance. They also get to put some of their ideas together in advance of the session, which can help the whole group hit the ground running.

So give it a try. The next time you’re going to use one of the ITK tools, do a little prep work and measure out a few of your ingredients. I think you’ll find it helps make the whole experience move along smoothly.

photo credit: Calum Lewis on Unsplash