Practicing Innovation

MIT Lincoln Laboratory staff hold workshops to foster inventive thinking

Screenshot of an Idearator pageAt the online Idearator, a participant in an innovation tournament posts a proposal for a novel concept. Raters can rank the merits of the proposal on a scale of 1 to 10 stars and can post questions or offer feedback on the idea.

Americans hear a lot about the importance of innovation. Articles in news magazines and business journals quote economists and industry leaders crediting Americans' technological ingenuity for the nation's competitiveness in the global arena.

The government agrees. The establishment of the Department of Defense's Defense Innovation Initiative was announced in a 15 November 2014 memorandum that states, "America's continued strategic dominance will rely on innovation and adaptability across our defense enterprise. This [initiative] will build the foundation for American leadership well into the 21st Century." The White House report Strategy for American Innovation begins, "America’s future economic growth and international competitiveness depend on our capacity to innovate. We can create the jobs and industries of the future by doing what America does best—investing in the creativity and imagination of our people."

How can we accomplish this investment? Many people embrace the view that creativity and imagination are gifts bestowed upon a select few whose bold, inventive ideas come to them much as lightning bolts strike the earth. But, if we trust Thomas Edison, who was famously quoted as saying, "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration," the question, then, is, "Can one work to develop creativity or ingenuity?"

A 2015 MIT Independent Activities Period (IAP) workshop organized and directed by technical staff members from MIT Lincoln Laboratory sought to answer that question with a "Yes." Called the Innovation Tournament, the workshop provided both tactics and strategies to help participants cultivate the habit of innovative thinking. The Innovation Tournament was one of dozens of noncredit and for-credit IAP offerings available to MIT students and employees during the January intersession between academic semesters.

This IAP offering was modeled after a workshop developed to foster innovative thinking among the technical staff at Lincoln Laboratory. Robert Shin, division head, Kevin Cohen, assistant division head, and Kenneth Gregson, senior staff member, in the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Tactical Systems Division were inspired to create a Lincoln Laboratory innovation workshop after attending final presentations of the IdeaLab, a graduate course at the Boston University School of Management taught by Professor Nitin Joglekar and based on the book Innovation Tournaments by Christian Terwiesch and Karl T. Ulrich.

These three enlisted Matthew Cornick, Robert Galejs, and John Bilodeau of their division and Hamilton Shepard of the Engineering Division to help design an interactive workshop that would spark idea generation and provide a framework for refining the ideas. Since October 2014, four innovation tournaments have been held at Lincoln Laboratory, drawing participants from the Engineering, Communication Systems, Air and Missile Defense Technology, and ISR and Tactical Systems Divisions. Workshops to involve other Laboratory divisions are scheduled throughout 2015.

"We all rely on and value innovation, but until recently we haven't tried to teach it," says Cohen. "These workshops introduce our staff to some of the key ingredients. In a relatively short timeframe, workshop participants are provided tools for collaborating on idea generation, refinement, and presentation. Hopefully, the experience will enable all of us to be a little bit more innovative in our jobs."

Idea Generation
A key element of the innovation tournaments is a new application dubbed "Idearator." Participants use this online medium to individually propose 10 ideas for new devices or techniques; they define problems they think need addressing and sketch out potential solutions. Participants and other volunteers from around the Laboratory log into the Idearator to send feedback on the solutions, including a 1-to-10-stars rating. Highly rated ideas are chosen for small teams to pursue, and the solutions are presented at a final tournament.

The response to the program has been enthusiastic. "The 60 participants at the Laboratory have generated 589 ideas, and the 20 people in the IAP course generated more than 50 ideas during the workshop that was abbreviated when snowstorms forced MIT's closure," says Gregson, who was instrumental in the Idearator's development and who has become an unofficial statistician for the tournaments. "In addition, 200 reviewers at the Laboratory have provided 3512 ratings and 933 detailed comments on ideas. During the two-week IAP workshop, reviewers from among Lincoln Laboratory staff, workshop participants, and MIT students and faculty submitted 288 ratings and 126 critiques. This entire body of ideas is maintained as a resource for our staff and as an 'idea pool' for potential future projects. We've observed recurring themes in these ideas and have plans to link them through the use of concept tags that will aid navigation through the pool," continues Gregson.

Isaac Stoner, an entrepreneur in the biotechnology industry and a candidate for a master's in business administration at MIT's Sloan School of Management, enjoyed his participation in the IAP innovation course in January and found the online application engaging: "The seminar did an excellent job of creating a competition through its Idearator website. This concept of 'gamifying' the process of invention was quite novel and powerful. The process of weeding these ideas down was well thought out and methodical, and it was clear that the best ideas rose to the top."

Sample mind mapThis mind map shows the beginnings of a brainstorming exercise to elicit ideas for expanding the capabilities of cameras. The first step was to identify types of and uses for cameras.

At the workshops, participants practice techniques for generating ideas. For example, a "mind map" that begins with a general topic of interest, say a camera, grows as people brainstorm new uses and types of cameras to add to the tree a facilitator sketches on a whiteboard. The branches expand as people brainstorm more finite developments of ideas; for example, the camera tree adds a leaf for "airborne cameras" that buds into "cameras on remote-controlled model planes" and to "cameras on autonomous unmanned air vehicles (UAVs)."

A powerful strategy often used by Lincoln Laboratory researchers to find answers to challenging problems is "blue teaming." Faced with a situation, a blue team asks, "How can we?" and "What if?," hypothesizing solutions that they then analyze for feasibility.

Robert Atkins, head of Lincoln Laboratory's Advanced Technology Division, has led interactive blue-team exercises at both the IAP and the in-house tournaments. "One highlight of my briefing is the 'three little pigs' example, where participants think about the pigs' problem of building a safe but affordable house. It's designed to make folks think out of the box, as well as to think about what makes a solution 'beautiful,'" says Atkins. "I've given this briefing many times now, but every time someone comes up with an idea no one has thought of before."

Complementary Lessons
A feature that Lincoln Laboratory added to Terwiesch and Ulrich's tournament format is instruction on creating and delivering better presentations. In business and research spheres, innovations may not get funded if their originators do not "sell" their ideas in compelling, clear briefings. At the conclusion of the Innovation Tournament, teams give presentations of the most promising concepts.

Presenter at an Innovation TournamentHamilton Shepard shares an innovative idea for a smart device that alerts bicyclists to oncoming cars. A video recording of his presentation is later mixed with feedback from a real-time audience rating tool. Developed by Bilodeau, Marianne Procopio, and Eric Rugar, this tool generates a strip chart and histogram (lower-right inset in video clip above) to capture average rating versus time and instantaneous distribution of ratings, respectively. This information helps speakers “see” when their presentations are successfully reaching people.

To learn effective communication techniques, workshop attendees participate in an interactive session that the instructors developed from ideas in the book Your Perfect Presentation and the "Own the Room!" training, both authored by Bill Hoogterp. Videotapes of the students' presentations illustrate the workshop's advice in action. A participant in the IAP workshop immediately engages the audience with a verbal "picture" and an emotional appeal of a heartfelt story of a grandparent's loss of sight. Some speakers open with an invitation to listeners to see themselves facing a problem: "Imagine ...." Others involve the audience by asking them to reply to questions with a show of hands. Post-presentation reviews of the videotapes help speakers understand the approaches that "captured" the audience and the practices that weakened the impact of their talks.

Talks on technology development and its connection to entrepreneurial success added a business-world dimension to the IAP workshop. In addition to hearing from the Lincoln Laboratory staff facilitating the tournament, the IAP class enjoyed guest lecturers Prof. Joklegar and Long Phan, the chief executive officer and president of Top Flight Technologies, a company that develops technology for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The innovation tournament condenses an array of exercises into 24 hours over a few weeks, but participants and instructors have appreciated the dialogs engendered by the sessions and the Idearator.

"The format of the workshops is quite unconstrained," says Cornick, who was involved in teaching students the blue-team process. "You can really see people expressing their viewpoints without filters. This freedom allows people to develop innovative solutions."

Innovation Tournaments and the Idearator are gathering interest at MIT. A Sloan School of Management professor, Steven Eppinger, is looking at using the Idearator in innovation workshops he conducts with classes; the Idearator's feedback component is particularly attractive for opening up and sustaining conversations about new ideas. The Institute-wide MIT Innovation Initiative and similar department or organization efforts are also potential adopters of Lincoln Laboratory's tournament model.

Posted April 2015

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