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

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!



Introducing the updated Problem Framing Canvas!

Introducing the updated Problem Framing Canvas!

Learn more about the equity-driven updates to one of our most popular ITK tools.

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As part of Team Toolkit’s collaboration with the MITRE Social Justice Platform, we embarked on taking a fresh look at our ITK tools with an equity lens.

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, for those who have the greatest need, who are traditionally left out of the design process. When we design at the margins, we design for everyone.

One way we can do this is by considering who has been traditionally “left out” and to design solutions that level the playing field. In addition, equity-driven design thinking encourages us, as the designers, to take a critical look at our own assumptions and biases that we inherently bring to the table and implicitly embed as part of the final solution.

First up was one of our most popular tools: Problem Framing canvas.

Visually, you’ll notice that we’ve partitioned the Problem Framing canvas into three areas: Look Inward, Look Outward, and Reframe.

Look Inward speaks directly to the additional step, Notice, in equity-driven design thinking. In this section, participants are guided to look not only at the problem they are facing, but also how they themselves might be part of the problem. We’ve added questions to encourage groups to explicitly discuss assumptions and biases, and as part of the Reflect step in equity-driven design thinking, participants are asked to imagine which of these assumptions may be designed, reframed, or removed.

New questions have also been added to dig deeper into who experiences the problem. We ask participants to consider the lived experiences and consequences that users who have this problem face, which may otherwise have been overlooked. We also added equity-related factors for why this problem hasn’t been solved, such as lack of authority or a situational inequity.

Look outward also speaks directly to the Notice step in equity-driven design thinking. In this section, we encourage participants to broaden their thinking to find more insights and inspiration by learning from others who may or may not have this problem.

We’ve added questions to encourage participants to consider who has been left out, as well as to examine who benefits when the problem does or does not exist. We’ve also added an equity-related factor for why others don’t have this problem, which is that it’s been transferred.

Reframe culminates the Reflect step in equity-driven design thinking by asking participants to synthesize their insights and discussions into a succinct problem statement. We’ve streamlined the suggested “How Might We” statement to help groups create more powerful, action-oriented statements.

Lastly, we’ve introduced new “Question Bank” and “Facilitation Tips” sections in the Instructions to further assist problem framing discussions. These additional questions can provide more richness to the discussion, as well as deeper inquiry into the problem.

One final important point – Although we’ve updated the Problem Framing canvas with an equity-driven lens, this tool can be used to guide discussions on ALL problems, not just equity-related problems. By embedding this equity-driven lens into the questions and the tool itself, this naturally leads to discussions that will help create more equitable solutions since they bring equity to the forefront, rather than relying on a participant to bring them up.

We hope you find the updated Problem Framing canvas useful, and let us know what you think in the comments below!

Lotus Blossom Tool Tips

Lotus Blossom Tool Tips

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.

The Double Diamond

The Double Diamond

The double diamond is a well-known visual map of the design process starting with the challenge at hand and ending with a final solution. The process pairs divergent thinking (where the participants come up with many ideas) with convergent thinking (narrowing the ideas down to the most feasible and practical).

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The Double Diamond is a problem-solving framework that originally began in the design world. It describes four phases of problem solving:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Design the right thing
  3. Design the thing right
  4. Deliver

The first phase is when a problem is acknowledged, and the problem-solving challenge is introduced. Phase 2 and 3 are the active portions of the problem-solving process where the solution is ideated, designed, and created. In the last phase, the solution is delivered to the user.

The diamonds represent the different types of thinking that are needed during the problem-solving process. The left-hand side of each diamond represents Divergent Thinking. This is when teams are encouraged to widen their thinking and generate a broad range of ideas. On this side of the diamond, quantity is more important than quality. Divergent thinking benefits from diversity of thought, so be sure to include new and varied team members who can help everyone think outside of the box.

ITK Tip: Check out the 4 tools in the “Generate Ideas” category of our Toolkit: Lotus Blossom, Mind Mapping, TRIZ Prism, and Bodystorming!

After a certain threshold (based on time or some other factor), the team then moves into the right-hand side of the diamond. This area represents Convergent Thinking, where the team narrows their thinking. Here, they’ll focus on reducing, prioritizing, and eliminating many options into one. The team will often use evaluation criteria to help them remove options.

ITK Tip: Check out the 3 tools in the “Evaluation Options” category of our Toolkit: Rose, Bud, Thorn; Stormdraining; and Prototyping!

You’ll notice that there is a diamond in both Phase 2 and Phase 3. That’s because this cycle of divergent and convergent thinking is an iterative process. Although the diagram doesn’t explicitly show it, you can actually repeat the diamond pattern multiple times within one phase, whether in parallel or in series!

Another thing you’ll notice is the similarity of the labels in Phase 2 and Phase 3. However, they are critically different in meaning: In Phase 2, you design the right thing, whereas in Phase 3, you design the thing right.

The key distinction here is that Phase 2’s priority is to make sure you define the problem well. A clearly articulated problem statement ensures that all teammates are on the same page and that it’s a problem worth solving. If this phase is skipped, team may find themselves creating solutions for symptoms of a problem, rather than the real problem itself.

ITK Tip: Check out the Problem Framing canvas!

Once the team gains consensus on the problem, then the team embarks into Phase 3 where they can begin creating solutions. The team again flows from divergent to convergent thinking until they arrive at a final solution. Especially in Phase 3, it’s very common to have multiple iterations of this diamond cycle.

That’s the double diamond in a nutshell, and let us know in the comments below how your team uses this framework!