Pop Open MITRE's Toolkit to Discover Pathways to Innovative Thinking

January 2019
Topics: Management (General), Software (General), Software Engineering (General), Systems Engineering (General), Innovation
What if you could use tools to build not just products, but community? That's the goal of the MITRE Innovation Toolkit, which spurs collaboration and creativity with a human-centered focus. Federal agencies are adopting it to improve problem solving.
MITRE Innovation Toolkit team

MITRE's Innovation Toolkit team (left to right):  Rachel Gregorio, Jessica Yu, Aileen Laughlin, Dan Ward, Stephanie Medicke,  Kaylee White, and Niall White.

Over the years, innovation has largely been viewed in the context of product and technology advances—from the wheel and the engine, to the internet and the smart phone. In other words, it's usually a thing

But what if our perspective on innovation were more … well, innovative? What if innovation is just as relevant to a process as it is to a product or service? A multi-disciplinary team from MITRE believes that's not only possible, but something that should be available to everyone.

The team has developed the MITRE Innovation Toolkit, a collection of methods and techniques that promote creative thinking and problem solving. The tools offer low-cost, high-impact pathways for helping everyone think and work more like innovators.

"The type of innovation we're hoping to inspire is more about collaboration and less about technology," says systems engineer Dan Ward, who develops tools for the toolkit and leads hands-on workshops in their use. "We aren't just looking for innovative ways to write code, but for innovative ways to work together. We want to help people save time and money, while increasing their impact."  

The idea for an innovation toolkit packed with different approaches and methods isn't new. The market is full of them. In fact, when Team Toolkit began investigating the space, they found approximately 300 tools exist to promote innovation. But on closer inspection, they found nothing that was tailored for MITRE and our sponsors. 

For one thing, "brainstorming" was continually equated with the act of innovating, when it should really be viewed as just one of many elements in the process, Ward says. One of the most crucial elements of innovation is focusing on the user. 

 "Human-centered design is really the key," says Rachel Gregorio, one of the human factors engineers on the team, which also includes Aileen Laughlin, Stephanie Medicke, Kaylee White, Niall White, and Jessica Yu. "To innovate, you have to put the user at the center of the problem to understand their goals and pain points. What problem are you trying to solve? What job do users need to get done? At that intersection, novelty and impact meet."

MITRE to Pentagon: "Let's Keep This Going"

After months of testing, the team narrowed the list of existing tools down from 300 to just 24—making considerable enhancements to each tool along the way and developing user-friendly ways to describe each method. They organized the tools into distinct categories (Frame Problem, Evaluate Options, Understand Users, Develop Plan, Generate Ideas, Reduce Complexity). That way, toolkit users can easily select the most appropriate paths for their objectives.  

Each exercise can be easily downloaded and followed. In most cases, a facilitator (whether from the outside or designated from a team) walks participants through the process, using templates to capture information. The output varies. Participants may create a visual document through which they can better understand the user or engage in a conversation that creates a shared awareness of the situation. Results may include a written document that help set goals or possibly even 3D renderings that assist in prototyping.

In January 2018, the team began field testing the kit within MITRE. Team Toolkit held three workshops to train staff in using them on internally funded research projects through our MITRE Innovation Program.

Sponsor-facing projects came next. In August, a Pentagon sponsor used six of the tools to help with technology problem solving, organizational design and dynamics, and teambuilding and consensus. The principal sponsor has already asked for another toolkit training session, noting the work's importance.

Team Toolkit has led several training sessions with personnel at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts and at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Early into the development process, the team conducted a "journey mapping" exercise for people who work in vehicle sourcing at Langley. Journey mapping is a way to visualize a user’s experience with a product or service to help create shared awareness and identify opportunities for improvement.

Participants identified several bottlenecks in the vehicle sourcing process and determined areas where process changes and automation could provide some relief. 

Failure Is an Option—As Long as You Learn from It

The team also led a Hanscom group through a "premortem" exercise, which is a technique for framing a problem by imagining a future in which the project has completely failed. By envisioning failure, participants can have a better understanding of what constitutes success. 

The premortem tool has also worked well at MITRE. In August, Ward led a premortem session for an internal team of software developers who create custom applications to improve employee productivity. 

“I've never seen people talk so honestly at work," says Matt Merrill, who leads the software group. "There was something about the process and about the way that Dan led it that helped everyone let their guard down. One thing we talked about was how we need to admit when something has failed so we can learn from it. That led to a big push for us to have ways to measure our progress, so we really will know when something isn’t working."

The group has already begun documenting guiding principles and procedures so they’re all working towards the same software development goals and standards. 

"I want to run the same exercise for another project that I’m doing,” Merrill says. "I would definitely recommend a premortem to any group that's having trouble developing a plan."

Merrill believes he could now lead the exercise himself, after seeing Ward in action. And that's exactly what the toolkit developers hope will happen. 

Even the Team Toolkit members got into the premortem act, to put their ideas to the test. They held their own premortem discussion to explore—you guessed it—potential failure. What if no one used the tools? What if the team began to fall apart? In other words, what if their hard work didn't work out? 

These dire musings generated concrete insights. The team realized that they needed to incorporate better metrics to understand exactly which tools are used. They also realized that success will depend on the relationships they build and maintain with a broader community, which led to a new focus on customer relations management.

"We ended up with a paper print-out with all this amazing information," Ward says. “But the most meaningful artifact produced was the conversation—the shared awareness of the experience and our vision. That continues to make a difference as we move ahead."

Building a Community of Innovators

So far, demand for the innovation toolkit is growing steadily both within MITRE and with our sponsors, largely due to word of mouth.

 “We have really focused on making the tools easy to use and grasp. Everything is on our website, including templates that you can download,” Gregorio says. “That way, the tools can be available to anyone who wants to use them, and we can do our part in democratizing innovation.”

The members of Team Toolkit are working to create a future in which so many people are using the toolkit that an entire community forms around the concept. 

“We want to mentor, coach, and encourage people to use it,” Ward says. “We want them to dive in and join the conversation, let us know what is working and what isn’t, and make it an interactive experience.”

—by Twig Mowatt

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: Innovation.

Learn more about the MITRE Innovation Toolkit and how it can help jumpstart your organization's creative and problem-solving processes.

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