Interview with Tammy Freeman on Redefining Innovation


Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the fourth installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Tammy Freeman is a Business Process Innovation consultant at MITRE. Her work focuses on bringing novel solutions to MITRE sponsors by helping them redefine how they understand Innovation. In addition to her work at MITRE, Tammy volunteers as a Social Impact Consultant, traveling to marginalized communities to understand how they solve problems. It is this embedded perspective that makes her work stand out, both at MITRE and abroad.

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Podcast Transcript
Cameron: Hello, everyone. My name is Cameron Boozarjomehri, and I am welcoming you to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast. Today I am joined by Tammy Freeman, a business process engineer, at MITRE. Tammy, would you like to tell us a little about yourself?
Tammy: Absolutely. Well, thank you for having me Cameron. I appreciate it. I am a business process engineer. I also work with business innovation, specifically designing.
Cameron: That sounds like a very interesting area to be in, and as I understand it, you have a very interesting topic you want to talk to us about. Specifically, you volunteer as a social impact consultant, which gives you, I guess, a unique insight into how we can define and maybe redefine innovation here at MITRE.
Tammy: That’s correct.
Cameron: So maybe without getting too into the weeds, what does a social impact consultant do?
Tammy: A social impact consultant, the best way I can describe, is kind of versus a volunteer. So a volunteer will go and they’ll volunteer their time to, say, an orphanage or cleaning up the highway. Social impact consultants, we are more concerned with doing work in the economic, political, and social infrastructure and the ramifications of where we do work.
Tammy: We’re looking not just at going to volunteer for a couple hours or a couple days. We’re understanding the short- and long-term impact of the work that we’re doing and we’re looking to really do the least harm, right? So we’re looking at our footprint in the areas that we work, we’re looking at not just outputs but also outcomes.
Cameron: Okay. I think … maybe a way I would understand that is a lot of the times when you see people take on efforts, they are trying to solve symptoms and not causes. And so a lot of your work, it sounds like you go into these areas and you’re trying to understand, what are the foundational things that cause people to be in these situations? Is it a product of their environment? Is it a product of a mismanagement of resources? Things like that.
Tammy: Correct. Absolutely. And … it’s not something that you do and you put down, right? It’s something that you live, right? So I’m always, in the places I work, which are Nairobi, Kenya and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’m always in tune to what’s happening there economically, politically, socially, of course, because I need to keep abreast of what’s going on because these are affecting the people that I work with.
Tammy: The other thing is that sometimes we … there is a … the notion of volunteerism or voluntourism, they call it, right? Where people go, and they’re tourists, but they volunteer. And sometimes some of these things are set up where they actually do more harm than good. So I don’t go to places for the photo op. I don’t go to places because it makes me feel good. I go to places where I feel like I can do the most or have the most impact with the smallest footprint and use my capabilities, many of which I’ve learned and honed here at MITRE, to do some good in the world.
Tammy: Which is… Doing good in the world is corny sometimes, but I think that’s important.
Cameron: So I’m very curious. With your background in volunteering and also your work at MITRE, I was curious, kind of what your path was getting into the volunteer work and maybe starting at MITRE and how you see those two roles playing off each other.
Tammy: That’s a great question. So it’s actually MITRE’s fault that I actually started doing this part. Because when you … I’m extremely driven by impacting the people on the ground, right? And I’m extremely driven by solving problems that can make the lives of individuals better. And so, that’s why I came to MITRE because MITRE is mission-focused and we’re focusing on the beneficiary or the people who need the services.
Tammy: When you work for the VA you’re focused on veterans. When you work for … social security administration, you’re focused on people who need services that they provide. The same thing with social impact work. The difference is normally I’m working with the people who are not only affected by whatever the problem is but they’re also the innovators. So they’ve now seen a problem in their community and they’re taking then steps to remediate via whatever means that they have.
Cameron: Well, let me actually, you bring it back to the … to the leading point we had which was your work you described as being able to help you define and redefine innovation, which is very core to MITRE’s mission and a lot of the work we do. We Try to innovate. And I was curious, what kind of events and roles help you redefine that terminology?
Tammy: So the only way I can answer that is with a story.
Cameron: Well, we’re here for stories.
Tammy: So … picture it, June 2016. So I’m in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and I’m working with an organization, in a favela, in Rio.
Cameron: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Tammy: And at the onset, I’m going on because I have capabilities, Lean Six Sigma, process improvement and things, and things like that that can help. I mean that can help anybody. But I quickly learned that that capability was secondary to understanding what was actually happening with my client and the people that my client served.
Tammy: I think that was kind of the … the turning point for me in this work and understanding my role and … to bring it back, the role in which I play at MITRE and having that empathy. And not just empathy, it’s more of the understanding that the world in which I exist and the world in which other people may exist may be night and day. Doesn’t make it right or wrong, it just makes it different. So how might I then adapt? And how might I then adapt the things that I do and the things that I … the capabilities that I have to do something that will help them in the long run and help impact the work that they do? Does that make sense?
Cameron: Yeah, it sounds like it’s a question of context really. You’re so used to having this, I guess, not bureaucratic, but very business-oriented understanding of how Six Sigma and all these different business process improvement tools are supposed to work and when you enter the real world, when you step out of the corporate setting, that application just did not translate.
Tammy: It doesn’t translate and … when you enter, when you exit that world and you enter into a different country and you’re working with people who are marginalized and live on the peripheral of society, it’s a totally different, totally different world. And so I go in, typical consultant style and here I go with, “This is what we’re going to do.” And listen to my client in trying to craft out a plan that would move them forward and reality hits where you can’t reach your client because they don’t have electricity so there’s no internet. Or they don’t have running water.
Tammy: And so it’s not that that is a work stoppage, but it’s just a different thing because our clients here, they have internet, right? They have running water. They have these kind of basic things that sometimes you take for granted. And so having to adjust and adjust expectations and I think most of my other people were kind of maybe a little bit ambitious in a good way but sometimes you can’t always get everything done in a day that you want.
Tammy: And culturally, even working with different cultures, like with Brazilians, time is different. So 11 o’clock is 1 o’clock. You know? And so these types of things you have to make adjustments for when you’re doing this work.
Cameron: I think going back to that, how we define and redefine innovation, it sounds like what you’re getting at is that maybe a few things are definitely off when you step from the innovation space into the real world. And this can be anything from going from one city to another all the way to going from one problem area trying to get autonomous cars to be a thing, to another which is supporting military, to supporting civilians in these hostile environments.
Cameron: And please, I do not mean to over-simplify. So if I say something wrong, feel free to correct me. But it sounds like one of the biggest problems that you have to deal with is assumptions. The assumptions that, “Oh I should be able to go into this community and there should be some … some of my training, something I know about process and improvement should apply here.” But while the assumption that process improvement is probably still a valid approach, the way you go about it, it has to be completely different because as you pointed out, they don’t have fundamentals we expect the community to have like running water.
Tammy: Not consistently have it, but sometimes it’s just not consistent, so it could be randomly just cut off for days at a time.
Cameron: And in some ways that is worse. Because in one case, it’s easy to understand, “All right there is no running water. Now we understand this is a constant.” Or there is a running water. But the fact that the water is intermittently unreliable becomes troublesome because now you have to be able to adjust on the fly to a new situation.
Tammy: Exactly. And I think with innovation, it’s … when I talk about innovation in marginalized communities, I think … when people think about marginalized people they think of poor people, right? People living in poverty. But poverty is not just the lack of money. It is … probably more important, the lack of resources. The lack of access and opportunity. Additionally, socially, society then kind of paints a broad brush on them and they become lazy or they become … somehow the undesirables of society, right?
Tammy: Because they are poor or marginalized or whatever have you. Now you have them being socially, politically, and economically excluded. So you’re battling that, right? It’s not just, “I don’t have any money.” So I just wanted to get to the innovation part of that. We have a group within MITRE, it’s the innovation toolkit and they have in my opinion probably the best definition of innovation.
Tammy: You can use the innovation that ties things to technology as long as … or if it meets this criteria, then this is innovation, if it’s not a technological advancement, it’s not. Or you have things that tie innovation to market value. If I can sell it or if something … and that’s not it. So I think innovation, and this is the definition that the [Innovation] Toolkit team uses, is novelty and impact. And that’s broad enough to encompass, I think, some of the work that I do, and it’s not too narrow where it excludes what we call kind of innovations of the informal sector.
Cameron: And, actually, I don’t know how much you can speak to it, because I know that you want to be very careful in describing the different groups that you work with in your volunteer work. But can you talk to maybe an example where novelty and impact really play a role on how you understand innovation when helping them? Or even how you understand it here at MITRE?
Tammy: So again, innovation is novelty plus impact. And not contingent upon technology. Innovation also does not have to make money. So we need not assign a market value to something in order to determine if it’s worthy of being innovative. Finally, which is important, they also need not scale, right?
Tammy: So … many innovations are local and that’s okay. And I think that if anything that we can learn or try to home in on at MITRE is understanding that, and I know that we drive scale because it’s faster, it’s cheaper. If we can replicate something, it’s always seen or deemed ideal. Local communities sometimes are worthy of their own interventions and innovation. And you may or may not be able to replicate that exactly. Maybe you can kind of take it as a model and base it off of, base future work off of it, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be scalable to be innovative.
Tammy: There’s a company in, again, in Nairobi, Kenya called Synergy. And they help to solve sanitation issues in urban slums. So kind of funny story, if you visit Kibera which is like I said an urban slum in Nairobi. You may hear somebody say, “Watch out for the flying toilets.” So I’ll let people Google that on their own, however, there are big issues around sanitation and sewage. And so Synergy comes in and they provide what they call non-sewer sanitation solutions for residents in urban areas.
Tammy: And so they also have a franchise model. So again, they’re empowering communities and empowering people to solve problems that are local, giving them these solutions, and then also people who are franchise owners to profit off of them in these areas where people would be normally shut out. Again, let’s talk about marginalized communities being shut out of systems, that’s what I mean.
Tammy: And these innovators come in and they have these ideas that they’re able to kind of implement and then to bring to these communities that are now helping to solve problems. This one’s interesting because this was not started locally by a resident. This was started by MIT for a global challenge. Right?
Cameron: Yeah, I think that perfectly hits the concept of novelty where normally maybe us in the United States might not think of this as novel but given the typical way an effort like this might actually be undertaken in another country, this is a clearly novel approach and then the impact is even greater because you are making a community necessity also a job and money generator that’s helping empower the community to maybe not be lifted out of poverty but have more options, more opportunity that they might not get otherwise.
Tammy: That’s it. That’s exactly it. And these are things that we see. I have a client in Nairobi, Kenya, and he owns a company called ReAfrique. And he lives in Kibera, again, which is the largest urban slum in Africa, and they have, like many slums, sanitation problems. And what he does is he … has, there’s a clean-up effort to clean up the slum so what he does, he takes materials that he can use to create shoes for school-aged children. Because there’s a standard shoe that they all have. So there’s this standard shoe and then he makes kind of more like designer, if you will, shoes using materials that were thrown away in the slum.
Tammy: What that does is obviously helps beautify, clean up their community, but he also provides jobs and job training to people and then he provides children shoes that their parents may or may not have been able to afford, right? So it’s not free as in give them away but they’re much less expensive than if they went out to … I guess a “regular” store and purchased them.
Tammy: So these are people making interventions in their communities with the problems that they see. So they live these problems. And I think that’s the slight difference between the work that I do there and us at MITRE. We don’t always work with the people who are living the problem. We work with the people who are…
Cameron: Trying to help.
Tammy: Right. Inviting us in. So there’s … it’s a little bit the seat and where you sit can be slightly different.
Cameron: But that’s a valued perspective to bring to those people to say that, “This is a problem that we understand, and we understand more importantly that this is not just a problem you’re going to snap your fingers and solve. It’s going to be an effort.”
Tammy: Well, and I think what’s interesting is that … the individuals who are affected by these problems know what they need to do to solve the problem. But again if you are marginalized you don’t have resources or opportunity or access to do everything. And so what we see isn’t an emergence, and you know, part of it is necessity entrepreneurship or … and I think we need to understand that when I go in and I kind of partner with these organizations and individuals, I am part of the team, right?
Tammy I’m not bringing any things to know that they don’t already know other than maybe something very specific like how to improve a process, how to look at things differently. Maybe some … they’re driving, right? They understand the community. They understand the needs that they have and so I’m just part of the team that’s helping to, kind of, help them get to where they need to be.
Tammy: What you find in these areas are individuals who are solving problems where the government either will not or cannot and where business has deemed it not profitable for them to go in and do. So they’re kind of left to their own devices. And you see amazing things that come from this. And we can learn a lot from them. Not necessarily us going and kind of showing them the way. That’s not it. It’s a two-way street.
Cameron: Exactly. And I think that’s a big thing to bring back to MITRE is the fact that, at the end, today, we are being invited to solve problems that, realistically, organizations can solve, but because we are a not-for-profit, because we’re not driven by the same things a lot of other organizations might be driven by, it gives us license to kind of expand our focus, understand not just what problem we’re trying to solve but understanding if it’s even a problem at all and bring back, kind of, those goals around innovation to say, “You guys have a … not necessarily a problem, but you have a … a process that maybe you’re misunderstanding. And we…”–either as MITRE or in your volunteer work–”think that there is a way that we can empower you to go beyond just solving a problem…to re-evaluating how you understand it as a problem.”
Tammy: I think with our design thinking work and so in the business innovation in my department, we deal with design thinking, and design thinking starts with empathy, right? And understanding the problem. And …
Cameron That is so very true.
Tammy: And a lot of times we treat, not just “we” as in MITRE but in general we treat symptoms and not problems. And the other thing that we can tend to do is treat what we know how to treat, right? And so I might not recognize this problem as something I can treat. So I’m going to kind of contort so it’s something that I have the skillset in order to solve.
Tammy: And that only gets you so far. Then you have the problem again and you’re back to square one. And I think using design thinking is a really good way to kind of empathize and really understand what the problem is. So if a client comes with a symptom, we may find out well, that’s … or they may say it’s a problem, we may find out that’s a symptom. Here’s a problem and part of that, understanding the problem, is actually talking to the people who are experiencing it so they can actually give us more insight into what’s going on and then we can kind of design solutions that fit the requirements that actually solve the issue at hand as opposed to putting a bandaid on top of it.
Cameron: All right. I think this has been a very enlightening conversation. So if anyone listening is interested in learning more about what we’ve discussed today, what resources would you point them to?
Tammy: In terms of innovation and informal sector innovation there is … a good deal of academic research around how do we value and … understand informal sector innovation. And looking at the methodology in which we do so. So you can just Google “informal sector innovation”. And there’ll be some links that’ll come up which will inevitably lead you to more links and other information. So I think that’s a really good start.
Tammy: In terms of social impact consulting, there are a few good organizations that people can get involved with that they’re interested in. And they can contact me if they have specific questions about that.
Cameron: I think that’s a great place to end it. A quick thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for making this podcast possible. And of course a big thank you to you, Tammy. Tammy Freeman is a business process engineer at MITRE, and this has been a very enlightening talk. Thank you.
Tammy: Thank you, Cameron. I appreciate the opportunity.

Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public

© 2019 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. (Case number 19-1257)

MITRE’s mission-driven team is dedicated to solving problems for a safer world. Learn more about MITRE.


See also: 

Designing a Bridge Between Theory and Practice

Applying Design Thinking to Boost Federal Agency Practice

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Interview with Dr. Michael Balazs on Generation AI Nexus

Interview with Dr. Sanith Wijesinghe on Agile Connected Government

Is This a Wolf? Understanding Bias in Machine Learning

A Spin Around the Blockchain—Exploring Future Government Applications

Apr 24, 2019


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