INTERVIEW: Aileen Laughlin

INTERVIEW: Aileen Laughlin

Aileen Laughlin, Lead Systems Engineer, brings a long passion for technology, innovation, and user-centered design to Team Toolkit. Her enthusiasm and wild ideas bring an electric energy to the team, so I was looking forward to chatting with her about how she got here, where she finds inspiration, and what she sees for the future of ITK.

(Military) Family Matters
Moving around a lot as an “Army brat” and growing up on military bases fostered her interest in technology and all things military. In college, she was interested in product design and the human element of technology, leading her to human factors. She landed an internship with a major contractor and that was that! After a while, she became frustrated by her inability to help users or make progress on projects (see her article on why user-experience design is so tough). She joined MITRE where she could have more direct influence and impact. Working on ITK has allowed her return to her military routes and get the Toolkit in the hands of the warfighters to unleash their innovation!

Doing something different that makes a difference
Aileen is always trying to do more UX/UCD work since many don’t get that type of support. She believes that if more people understood design as a discipline, they would eliminate a big chunk of product and system problems. For the projects and programs Aileen supports, she feels rewarded to see people recognize the value and impact that comes from UX/UCD. She finds it most rewarding to help users be heard and get what they need for their jobs. With ITK, she helps people think and work differently, tapping into their inner innovator or inventor. Witnessing people in all their creative, curious, critical thinking glory collaborating with others to solve tough problems is a thing to behold.

Aileen loves to learn and is constantly sharing her findings with the team. She reads about what’s happening in the DoD (“These are exciting times!”) and technology, since it’s an interest of hers. On projects, she always want to know more about the context, landscape, or what’s new, sending her down the Google rabbit hole. Aside from Googling, she uses news aggregator apps, tagging topics of interest.

Tailoring toolkits
Admittedly obsessed with DIUx (now DIU) when former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the organization, Aileen was interested in getting MITRE involved. Understanding the user and understanding the problem is such a major part of any innovation venture. As she was looking across industry at innovative organizations that leverage the brain power of all their work force, she came across innovation toolkits.

A common theme in her research was the importance of tailoring toolkits for your group’s problems, organization, domain, and culture. Since MITRE and our sponsors are much more mission-driven, she was concerned terminology from a profit-driven company would reduce adoption and confuse users. Aileen reiterated the need to strike a balance between being respectful of people’s comfort zones while finding gentle ways to push them out of them.

Show, don’t tell
When asked about the best way to get people outside their comfort zones, Aileen recommended the “show, don’t tell” approach. She used bodystorming on one of her projects, where users brainstorm and work through a design using physical props. She explained in advance to her team that they’d move boxes around to find the ideal position for equipment. She could tell some people thought she was crazy when she arrived with labeled, duct-taped cardboard boxes matching the dimensions of different hardware. But once they packed into the truck and started moving the boxes around, people recognized the goodness. Find an instance where just doing things can make people believers.

Bodystorming is her favorite tool in the kit because it forces people to walk through something in its entirety. When people start to put an idea or concept through its paces, they can see where it starts to fall apart or maybe what might have been overlooked.

Challenging the status quo
Aileen’s innovation style? Nothing’s too wild + let’s just do it. With a “how can I make it better?” mentality, she has ideas coming and going all day. When she feels strongly about an idea, she want to execute right away before the fire is gone and something else catches her attention. She loves running her ideas by people – finding it eye-opening, informative and helpful to see things from another perspective. By the time an idea’s made its way through Team Toolkit, it’s evolved into something way more awesome.

She attributes culture change to finding the people in a group who are willing to question the status quo and ask questions. Aileen sees individuals as the catalyst for change and sees more people asking: “why do we keep working this way?” when there are better options. ITK methods can help you and your co-disruptors continue to ask some of those important questions. If you’re not sure how to start, Aileen recommends reaching out to someone on the team! Connecting with new, different people is oftentimes an undervalued part of innovation – so start with Team Toolkit.

Aileen’s dream for ITK is for people to feel empowered to use ITK on their own. That they adopt, adapt, and grow the toolkit for their needs and this creative, collaborative, critical thinking approach to problem solving becomes the new normal. Her vision for the future of ITK? Digging into the next set of really hard problems while eating 3D-printed failure cake on Mars.

INTERVIEW: Rachel Gregorio

INTERVIEW: Rachel Gregorio

What do caricatures, public speaking, and user experience design all have in common? I was fortunate to answer this question when I interviewed Rachel Gregorio. She’s tailored her career around her talent as an artist and passion for user centered design. In addition...
INTERVIEW: Niall White

INTERVIEW: Niall White

Earlier this month I sat down with Niall White for an interview, the latest in our ongoing Meet Team Toolkit blog series. Well, I’m using the word “with” loosely, because I was in Massachusetts and he lives in Utah. We talked about music, art, cake, stinky cheese, and...


I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Ward, an outstanding member of the Innovation Toolkit (ITK) team and MITRE Innovation Catalyst. (Yes, that is his actual title. Fitting, right?) Dan describes himself as a positive, energetic person and I think it is safe to say that anyone who meets him would agree. Dan brings oodles of fun, positive energy to every ITK function— enough to fill the room and even take home leftovers. We are pretty lucky to have him on the team!

 Dan has an impressive professional bio. He spent 20 years with the Air Force on active duty, retired, started an innovation consultancy, and came to MITRE to get the best of all those worlds. He’s an author, researcher, professional speaker, engineer— and let’s not forget, a fire eater! —you know, the people who stick flaming torches down their throats and blow giant fireballs from their mouths. (That tidbit doesn’t always make it to the professional bio.) He started doing magic shows when he was 10, then advanced to juggling, and then progressed fire eating. Naturally. (Yes, he likes spicy food. More about that later.) Now also seems to be a good time to put a plug in for his book: F.I.R.E: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. If you haven’t yet already, check it out. It’s one of his many claims to flame—uh, I mean fame.

After retiring from the military, Dan enjoyed the freedoms that came with independent consulting, but missed being part of the long-term goals and objectives that come with working on a larger team. A longtime friend who worked for MITRE and is also named Dan Ward (What are the chances?), invited our Dan Ward to apply for a new innovation and experimentation job opening at the company. Dan gave it a whirl and was struck by MITRE’s hiring practices. At his job interview, he found that MITRE wasn’t trying to fit him to a specific role, but rather change the role to fit him and his strengths and interests, making for an overwhelmingly positive experience that ended in an offer he couldn’t refuse.

At MITRE, Dan’s day job is working on defense acquisition policy. The Pentagon recently rolled out a middle-tier pathway of acquisition to speed up the process and reduce management overhead and oversight. Dan helps shape and craft that policy. He trains program offices and MITRE folks on what it means, how to use it, and how to implement acquisition authority. This work mainly consists of training, writing, consulting, and research.

 Dan’s passion project at MITRE is ITK. When asked to describe the ITK team he said, “A lot of what this team does is help groups work together on difficult technical and organizational challenges. We help with planning, communication, problem-solving and decision making. That’s what a lot of these tools come down to, helping human beings talk to each other in productive ways and solve problems as quickly and effectively as we can.”

 Dan’s role on the ITK team includes helping develop tools, facilitate innovation sessions, help MITRE teams understand what innovation is and how to use the tools, use the tools with them, and train people on how to use the tools on their own. As he explains, one of the ITK team’s core goals is to democratize innovation and make sure people understand innovation, know how to do it, and have access to the necessary tools.

The ITK team is unique in that it has a shared leadership structure. It is egalitarian. Dan pointed out, “I’m often described as the leader just because I am the oldest, but I try to correct that perception whenever it comes up.”

 The ITK team is also bound by strong ties of friendship. Throughout the interview, Dan often returned to how he values the team. When asked what the cover should look like if ITK were featured on a major magazine, Dan said, “I hope it would have a picture of all of our faces. As cool as the toolkit is, the most important thing we have built is the team.” When asked what the worst-case failure scenario looked like for ITK, Dan said, “A future where we aren’t even friends anymore. That feels like the most dystopian scenario. Or there is another failure where people point to ITK as the main reason for the failure. Of those two, not being friends anymore would be the worst.”

 The ITK team has a tradition of celebrating failure with failure cake(which we’ve blogged about previously). Since learning from failure is an important part of innovation culture, and we have had several occasions to literally eat failure cake, I asked Dan what his favorite failure cake flavor is. Next to chocolate, he said, “I like failure cake that tastes like learning.” When pressed for a flavor that most closely resembles the taste of learning, Dan replied with, “Tabasco. Hot and spicy with a little bit of pain but in a good way, and I kinda love it.” (Note to team: find a recipe for Tabasco cake.)

All in all, the one message that Dan hopes people really take away from ITK is, “You can do this. These tools are accessible. They are playful. They are usable. Innovation doesn’t need to be intimidating. It doesn’t need to cost so much or take so long. We can all do something that makes a difference. And I think we all have an obligation to be innovators—question the status quo, question our assumptions, and work well with the people we work with.”