Innovation Toolkit: Forging New Paths to Collaboration

April 2021
Topics: Innovation, Collaborations, Collaborative Decision Making, Education and Training (General), Social and Behavioral Sciences (General)
For MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit team, today’s collaboration challenges involve adapting existing tools and creating new ones—including a just-released guidebook that presents workplace problem-solving in a completely novel way.
Colleagues reviewing documents on a digital tablet

If 2020 and the start of 2021 were a landscape, it would be rife with obstacles, pits, threats, and roadblocks. So it only made sense that MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit (ITK) team—a multidisciplinary, multidepartmental unit committed to delivering problem-solving tools—would choose to frame its latest release as a literal adventure in collaboration.

The book, The Toolbox of Innovation: A Pick Your Path Experiment (available for purchase on lulu.com), is a whimsical spin on collaboration that puts the reader in the driver’s seat of a journey of exploration. As the story unfolds, users explore the innovation process, from teambuilding to testing prototypes to connecting with customers, with multiple paths to different outcomes.

The Toolbox of Innovation is just one piece of the ITK mission in recent months. The COVID-19 pandemic forced changes in how we work and collaborate, so the ITK team immediately began reworking their tools for use in a virtual setting, an activity that continues even today as they experiment with new ways to work remotely. And, because world and national events continue to shine a light on social justice and equity issues in the workplace and beyond, Team Toolkit is updating several tools to incorporate a more explicit focus on fostering equity and inclusion.

Dan Ward, MITRE senior principal systems engineer and a co-founder of the ITK team, shared some thoughts about The Toolbox of Innovation as well as innovation in general during this challenging era.

Q: The ITK's new book is written like the choose-your-own-adventure books many of us enjoyed as children. What led to the decision to release ITK information in this way?

We wanted to do something surprising—with a big wow factor that would catch attention and genuinely help people put innovation into practice. Writing a book sounded fun, and we didn’t want to write a typical business book.

We love experimenting, and it was a great way to collaborate asynchronously, as well as give independence and creative thought leadership to each contributing author. Rather than one person “owning” the story plot or developing characters, we co-created both as we went along.

Q: How do you see teams using the book?

An entire team may read the book, then discuss which tools are most applicable to their efforts. It’s also a great conversation starter for team members to discuss what did and didn’t resonate with them. And, if you’re feeling bold, you can share it with external business partners to introduce some of these tools.

Q: How is the Innovation Toolkit team adapting products (such as Journey Mapping, Premortem, and Lotus Blossom) in response to the shift to remote work?

We’re creating new and different ways to help teams collaborate over video instead of in person. We’ve learned a lot about how to use Teams, Zoom, and other online platforms, as well as virtual whiteboards for real-time collaboration.

Q: How is the ITK team adapting to address social justice and equity issues in the workplace?

We’re discovering that solving a problem requires us to not just focus on who experiences the problem, but to also look at who benefits when the problem exists. We’re asking ourselves, “What assumptions and biases are present?”

In late fall 2020, we embarked on an equity-oriented update of ITK tools, such as the Problem Framing Canvas, one of our most popular products. We added questions like, “Who has been left out so far?” and “Whose voice have we not heard yet?” And our work on stakeholder engagement tools does something similar: expanding our definition of “stakeholder.” We’re encouraging users to broaden their perspectives to bring in previously unheard voices.

Q: Has anything surprised you about how teams respond to these tools?

People really crave the structure that the Innovation Toolkit provides, because it’s structure that helps encourage creativity and exploration rather than limiting it. This is particularly important in today’s remote environment. Bringing people together around a shared worksheet or canvas is a great way to build connections and make progress together. 

We’ve also noticed that the people who approach ITK with the most skeptical attitudes tend to be the ones who are most enthusiastic about it once they give it a try. They say things like, “I can’t believe how much progress my team made in such a short amount of time!”

—by Nancy Romps

And explore more at Focal Point: Innovation

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