In this post, Howard Gershen describes how he managed Samuel Johnson’s feat of making “new things familiar, and familiar things new” for colleagues with discriminating palates. Best part of his approach is that you can try it right away, adjusting, of course, to the preferences of your own customers.—Editor
Author: Howard Gershen
If Necessity is the mother of invention, often Laziness is its father.
Last Spring, I was helping two other members of my MITRE department build out our Business Innovation capability. At MITRE, our departments, particularly those in our Technical Centers, are organized around technical capabilities (e.g., Business Process Management, Business Analytics, or Enterprise Architecture) that develop and bring to bear leading practices, reusable products and solutions, lessons learned, and services to respond rapidly and apply deep technical subject matter expertise across a broad range of sponsor challenges. The goal of the Business Innovation capability is to “identify innovative, customer-focused approaches to achieve mission outcomes.”
Our team was actively working to identify and showcase examples of the use of different methodologies and tools with the potential for transformational impact in government settings. These include Human Centered Design/Design Thinking, Lean Startup, and Business Model Generation.
As a way of immersing me in the work of the department, my team sent me off to identify interesting research papers. While casting a wide net for relevant material (which sounds more impressive than admitting my Google queries could’ve used more focus), I occasionally also found and forwarded links to promising articles, websites, diagrams, and the like. That was fine for internal sharing, but they wanted a way to share information on business innovation with the rest of our department. We discussed several approaches, including additions to a department SharePoint site, postings to an internal company discussion site, and even a traditional newsletter featuring articles about business innovation to help department members learn about resources and how to apply them to their work with government sponsors. Each approach, however, had limits, and traditional newsletters require spending time collecting materials and then summarizing them for readers.
I suggested a different, more innovative approach that would take less time to create (laziness was the technical term), and so was born the Eureka Café, a menu of business innovation resources that would just include links to a variety of other resources relevant to different aspects of business innovation. No long summaries of articles for me to write or readers to skim.
A menu is a curious way to convey information. It can be very concise or provide a lot of detail. It has a familiar structure, where simpler items (soups, appetizers, salads) appear before more complex/larger items (entrees), followed by rewards for getting through the first two parts (desserts). And it would require a lot less effort to produce and distribute the links I had found than to summarize the pages in a formal newsletter.
With suggestions and feedback, I put together what developers refer to as a minimum viable product. The first edition of the Eureka Café menu debuted in September 2016, along with a link to a survey created for readers, to gauge their interest and the menu’s usefulness.
Each item on menu appears in one of five sections: Appetizers, Entrees, Specials, Sides, and Desserts. The items consist of the title of the webpage and a link to the item, identified as a webpage, blog posting or podcast, article, news story, poster or infographic, PDF, YouTube link, whitepaper, or “Toon”. Following the structure of a restaurant menu, the rough rules for items on the menu are as follows:
- Appetizers are very short pieces for readers with very little time to digest the information (no pun intended…really). For example, this graphic titled “Buckminster Fuller”.
- Entrees are much more substantive sources of information, ranging from complicated graphics to blog postings (think pieces) to articles like the “CEOs Must Create a Business Model Innovation Sandbox”.
- Specials are usually items that require more time of the reader, such as YouTube videos or Podcasts like “Fail fast, learn fast”.
- Sides are reserved for articles or other short pieces about business innovation in government, such as “Navy’s budget guidance to include new language stoking innovation”.
- Desserts are cartoons, graphics, videos, or other materials that are more fun than the other items, serving as a reward for getting through the previous sections. They can even be used to lighten the mood for presentations with items like the “Universal Gantt Chart” graphic or the video “Smashing Expectations”.
The approach has been a great success; according to survey responses:
- 90.90% found the content useful
- 81.82% felt they learned something from the first newsletter
- 72.73% preferred this format to a standard newsletter with text
The first two editions of the Eureka Café menu are available to staff on our department SharePoint site. Our third edition of the menu will come out this spring because the survey also identified a preference for quarterly releases.
The idea of a menu to quickly present information is not new. Since the origins of the graphical user interface with drop-down lists of items, the concept of a menu has been the way to organize different options and paths to other areas of the system. And many times, business presentations will offer a series of possible options and request decisions based on a choice of, say, “one from Column A and two from Column B.”
My take was much more literal: use the visual metaphor of a diner menu to structure information display, relying on readers’ familiarity with the design of those menus, which are organized into a rough hierarchy of importance (or complexity). This approach can be adopted with any subject category to help organize materials into an easy-to-navigate structure, with only a handful of groupings based on relative importance, that can be updated with relatively little maintenance.
If this idea of presenting information is helpful for your work, the tip jar is by the register.
Howard Gershen is a multi-discipline systems engineer, with a special interest in creative ways to present information.