Collaboration Tips

This week’s blog post is by Maria Altebarmakian, one of our new ITK Trainees! 

By now we have all felt the pain of trying to collaborate and communicate with others remotely. Messages go unseen or unanswered, a train of thought is interrupted by a constant stream of notifications, and collaboratively iterating on ideas requires more intentionality. The online environment completely transforms how ideas can be shared, how they are communicated, and how they are understood.

Different mechanisms for online communication impact the extent and ways in which a group works and makes progress. Sometimes a quick chat message is enough, while other situations require a more in-depth video call. Intentionally designing the way participants communicate and collaborate online can make it easier for groups to work together on a task.

Here are some tips for three types of online communication for collaborative environments: text-based, audio-only, and video + audio.

  1. Text-based
    What are some examples?
    Email, Slack, Teams chat, message boards
    What are the advantages?
    It doesn’t require that all participants are contributing at the same time, so coordinating schedules becomes less of an issue. People also get more time to reflect on the ideas of others and formulate their own ideas.
    What are the challenges?
    When communication is totally text-based, it becomes more time-consuming to both generate contributions and understand contributions. Typing requires more upfront effort: you type, you read, you re-read, you edit, you add, you delete, etc. In a large enough group, many contributions may be added to the discussion from the time you start typing an idea to the time you are ready to send it. Monitoring and understanding the conversation can become more difficult as the sequence of the conversation can become jumbled.Also, tone of voice and non-verbal cues are lost with this form of communication. It becomes more difficult to know if others agree, are listening, noticed your message, and so on.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Organize the conversation into threads. It will become easier to monitor the space and also easier to retroactively understand the train of thought the group went through to arrive at a given conclusion.
    Slow down the pace. Some people will want to curate their response before sending it to the group. This can result in them spending a long time thinking through what they want to say. By slowing down the pace of the conversation, these individuals can find the time and opportunity to also make their thoughts heard.
    Use emojis to express that you’re paying attention. Keep in mind that the person on the other side of the screen does not know if you’re paying attention and noticing their messages unless you actively respond in some way. Adding a quick thumbs up or thumbs down can help others know where you stand on a topic of discussion. Responding with short messages to convey that a message was received and understood also can help to mitigate this issue.
  1. Audio-only
    What are some examples?
    Phone calls, Teams (without video), Zoom (without video), Skype calls
    What are the advantages?
    Vocal intonation comes across, so you can tell if someone is being genuine, sarcastic, engaged, or uninterested.
    What are the challenges?
    Depending on group size, it can be difficult for everyone to have an opportunity to contribute. Determining whose “turn” it is to speak isn’t obvious and participants who are shy might feel uncomfortable contributing.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Set up expectations for the flow of conversation. This may look different from one meeting to the next, depending on group size, hierarchy among participants, and other factors. For some situations it may make sense to have a moderator who manages turn-taking within the conversation. For other situations, setting up an agenda with a timeframe for each topic of discussion may suffice.
    Make space for quieter participants to contribute. If you are hosting a conference call with audio only and notice that some participants are taking over the conversation while others are quietly listening, gently asking those on the call who haven’t spoken in a while if they have anything to contribute on the current topic opens up the space for more points of view to be expressed.
  1. Video + Audio chat
    What are some examples?
    Teams, Zoom
    What are the advantages?
    With video chats, both vocal intonation and some non-verbal cues can be expressed. You can see what participants are nodding along or shaking their heads, who is distracted by notifications elsewhere on the screen, and so on. This can help to make speakers feel that there are others actually present with them, which can make the space feel more comfortable.
    What are the challenges?
    Video calls can be intimidating for some compared to other online avenues of communication. After a long day of video calls, people start to experience “Zoom fatigue”, making it more difficult to stay attentive and focused.
    The video feed can also invite in many distractions, with people focusing more on someone’s artwork on the wall behind them instead of what the person is saying.
    How do I mitigate these issues?
    Not everyone needs their video on at all times. Setting up some recommendations for participants, such as turning on video when they want to contribute or having only a subset of the group keep their video on, can leverage some of the benefits of video calls while mitigating some of the challenges. Being strategic about when you share your camera can help to combat “Zoom fatigue” and make the space feel less intimidating.
    Use custom backgrounds. Most of the meeting software now will allow users to set custom backgrounds that will blur out or replace their background so the focus will be on the speaker themselves. A good background will be simple: a solid color, a generic conference room, or a simple background blur are all great options. This can help to minimize distractions.
    Background distractions aren’t a negative in all cases. In some circumstances, building rapport within the team is an important element of the online meeting. Meeting with others online can feel distant and impersonal. Being able to see their space behind them can help to make them more “real”. For example, seeing a guitar in the background of another participant’s video feed can spark social conversations about music or learning an instrument that ultimately help participants feel more connected. In the long run, this can help the group feel more comfortable discussing their ideas, which boosts the potential for productive collaboration.

The best method for online communication will vary from one collaborative situation to the next. The key is to be thoughtful when deciding how to organize your team’s online collaborative sessions.

What have you found to be challenging when it comes to effectively communicating online? What tips and tricks do you use to address those challenges?

Simplified Problem Framing Tool

Simplified Problem Framing Tool

One of the things we love about the ITK tools is how adaptable they are. Each one is lovingly crafted to be easy to use across a wide range of situations… but they are also designed to be modified to meet the unique needs and situations of individual users. We sincerely love it when people take these tools and change them. And we love it even MORE when they share their new creations with us!

A group we’re working with recently did exactly that with one of our favorite tools the Problem Framing Canvas. The result was a Simplified Problem Framing Canvas that we just had to share with the rest of you.

It has all the magic and impact of the original, but in a more focused and tighter structure. I just might like it better than our original one (and that’s really saying something).

Am I Doing This Right?

Am I Doing This Right?

Today’s blog post is by Aaditi Padhi, one of the talented high school interns who worked with Team Toolkit this summer. We were delighted to have her on the team and are glad she’s sharing her story and experiences in this post!

Does this blog’s title question sound familiar? I’m sure many of you can relate to the anxiety of doing something wrong or the uncertainty of trying something new. This is a question I asked myself more times than I could count throughout my internship. Most of my experience as a high school intern in the ITK team was smooth sailing, but at times, it was clouded by uncertainty and a fear of failure. Some of the most important lessons I learned this summer were to embrace that fear and to keep persisting because not every problem has a crystalclear solution (cliché, I know). However, these lessons also translate into advice for those of you using the ITK. So, from my summer stories to your creative journey as a reader, here are my top tips for innovating smart, not right. 

 An Intern’s Guide to Continuous Improvement: 

Whether it’s working through a design process or trying your hand at carpentry, it’s unlikely that you’re going to hit the nail on the head on your first try. Early on, I realized that innovating is not always about getting perfect results right away, but rather it involves looping through a process of adding, receiving feedback, and changing. Sometimes, it took me as little as one shot to conceive ideal results, but many other times, it took multiple feedback sessions until I refined a product.  

Continuous improvement is a term that embodies this method – it describes the process of incremental changes over time. In this sense, using the ITK is an excellent example of this concept. It takes a handful of tools, many creative thinkers, and dozens of iterations to create a deliverable. At times, each iteration may not even bring forth improvements – but fear not, because persistence is the key to succeeding.  

 There are no Wrong Answers 

As a preface, innovating isn’t like solving an algebra problem where there is only one correct answer. It’s a common misconception that innovation tools only involve solutions that fit a certain frame. Using a multitude of tools in the toolkit and observing ITK workshops has taught me that there are no wrong answers. The diversity of ideas that are offered is one of the most crucial parts of the design process. In fact, receiving a wide variety of answers, whether they align with the traditional path or not per se, can be useful in other ways. Countless times have I proposed an idea that seemed insignificant or irrelevant at the time, but later came in handy later since I could recycle or repurpose them. It’s true that an idea may not be the most viable or appealing, but sometimes, it is better to keep it to the side than deem it worthless. Remember, when in doubt, write it down! 

 Don’t Be Afraid to Fail 

It took a failed startup and multiple downfalls for Bill Gates to start Microsoft. Arianna Huffington was rejected by 37 publishers before her publication rose to fame as the Huffington Post empire. Steve Jobs was even fired from a company he founded before he came back to help push Apple to success. In an era of exploration, one of the most important things to remember is that failure cultivates success. One of the reasons I was so close-minded at the beginning of my internship when I only focused on doing things the “right” way, was my fear of failure. However, as I got comfortable with the design process, I also got comfortable with pushing my boundaries and accepting the fact that it’s ok to fail. Having a fear of failing will only limit the ideas you produce, but welcoming failure as a reality gives you the freedom to think beyond the scope of ‘conventional’.  

Hopefully, these tips will inspire you to dive into an ocean of innovation. It is, admittedly, an intimidating notion, but it takes time, hardships, and failures to drive towards success. To quote Babe Ruth, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” 

The “It’s Not A Checklist” Checklist

We all used to have in-person meetings for collaboration and ideation activities. Then COVID-19 hit. And quarantine. And we all scrambled to maintain collaborations across stakeholders despite the inability to continue in the usual ways. And as you no doubt have noticed, there are critical differences between planning and executing a successful virtual collaboration and the traditional in-person events. It’s not as easy as just doing the same old stuff, but this time on video. We have to make a whole bunch of other changes, and they aren’t easy or obvious. That’s precisely where we’d like to help.

For a little background, check out Virtual Experimental Conference Delivers Real-World Results. That article basically describes an experiment we did, where a “coalition of the willing” from across MITRE’s Acquisition Disruptors (aka, the MAD Team) and the MITRE Innovation Toolkit (ITK) came together to respond to the unfortunate cancellations of the innovation collaboration events, pivoting from physical events into on-line events. We have planned and executed several events since that fateful day.

As we began reflecting on the experiences over the past few months, we took time to examine the virtual collaboration problem, which resulted in the following problem statement:

How might we create ways to continue collaborating with our Sponsors across multiple levels of classification while considering restrictions on physical proximity and the lack of accepted virtual environment norms/protocols as we aim to effectively solve problems to create a safer world?

With the help of MITRE’s Kaylee White as our lead facilitator, we ideated (ie, brainstormed) the key attributes associated with the virtual collaboration problem statement using our personal experiences and the Lotus Blossom tool from ITK. When Kaylee showed us the final product, we realized, “Hey! This is the beginning of a checklist to enable effective planning and executing of virtual collaboration events!”

And so, the It’s Not a Checklist” Checklist was born. While it is far from a complete set of activities and considerations needed to deliver a successful virtual collaboration, it’s a pretty good starting point. We have shared the information with MITRE teammates, and received very positive feedback. So, we would like to take the sharing a step further and offer the information here for your use. The presentation is approved for release – so feel free to share away!

Are you using the Not a Checklist? Did it help? Did we miss any key items? We welcome your feedback! Please share your experiences and ideas. Thank you!