Interview with Awais Sheikh on Deciphering Business Process Innovation

Cameron Boozarjomehri (Left) interviewing Awais Sheikh (Right). Photo by: Martin Buitrago

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest 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. 

Awais Sheikh is the Capability Steward for Business Innovation here at MITRE. In this episode, Awais helps us decipher a fundamental question for any organization on a mission to better the world. When you get past the hype, what is the real meaning of innovation? And perhaps more importantly, how can we get past the jargon so we can make a lasting, positive impact?

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Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:14 Hello everyone, and welcome to the Knowledge Driven podcast. I’m your host, Cameron Boozarjomehri, and today I will be interviewing Awais Sheikh, the Capability Steward for Business Innovation here at MITRE. Awais, so nice to have you.
Awais: 00:26 Hey, thanks for having me on.
Cameron: 00:28 So as I understand it, you are kind of in the business of defining business innovation.
Awais: 00:34 Yeah, that was certainly a first step. So I’m from the Enterprise Strategy and Transformation Technical Center here at MITRE. And one of the things that a few years, and probably three or four years ago now, our then department head talked about how we’re having this new capability stood up around business innovations. “Hey, that sounds really cool. What is that? So why don’t you help us figure it out?”
Awais: 00:55 And so that led to kind of an interesting journey to understand really what does this buzzword of innovation really mean beyond just kind of the hype. And then what would something called business innovation—what does that really mean, and how does it differentiate from other types of innovation that we do at MITRE and other places? So it’s been a fun and interesting journey just exploring the space.
Cameron: 01:17 So actually it sounds like you’re ready to just kind of jump right into things. Maybe you might want to start with explaining kind of the importance of defining business innovation, or kind of like really where … Like when I hear that, it’s such a loaded like, “This is what corporate people tell other corporate people to sound corporate.”
Awais: 01:33 Yeah, very corporate jargonese. And that was the first challenge, and I was very cognizant, even from my own experience, that even innovation itself is kind of a buzzword, and so what does that really mean? I read a whole bunch of research articles, and books, and things like that defining different definitions of innovation, and there are more jargony definitions that are out there, but really what it boiled down to, for me in terms of innovation was it’s all about fresh thinking that adds value. And that was my favorite distillation of a definition I found.
Awais: 02:05 And what I like about that is that fresh thinking that adds value could be a brand new technology, or algorithm that’s being used to solve this really epic national-level problem. Or it could just be a new tinkering of how I work on my code, or how I produce my deliverable that adds value. And so what I like about that is it really encompasses this idea of innovation as being something which could be disruptive, or incremental, and something that everybody could be a part of.
Cameron: 02:36 Yeah, we had Tammy Freeman, and then Dan Ward and the Innovation Toolkit Team on the show before, and there was just a lot of conversations around how innovation isn’t just like a technical challenge. It’s saying that it’s just how do you redefine thinking to find something meaningful?
Awais: 02:54 Absolutely, absolutely. And so the first step was figuring out what the heck innovation is. So now we define innovation, what is this thing called business innovation? What we found was that a lot of the ways that MITRE and the government thinks about innovation is kind of from this classic technology-driven innovation paradigm—which is fine. I think that’s how a lot of innovation works, even in the private sector, is this idea of, “All right, what’s a new technology?” And the technology doesn’t have to be IT, it could be a new basic research, it could be a new algorithm. Whatever.
Awais: 03:27 And this idea of kind of that linear technology, push life cycle where you explore that technology, you do some basic research, you come up with a prototype, and then once you define or refine that technology, you find a way of getting that adopted into the marketplace, whatever that means in our government environment. And even if you look at things like our MIP [MITRE Innovation] program, that’s kind of how that’s structured.
Awais: 03:52 And what we found is that’s still cool, that works, but there’s another paradigm for innovation that’s been picking up steam in the private sector and, increasingly, in the public sector that says, “It’s kind of this customer driven innovation paradigm.” Which is to say the starting point for the story of innovation is a customer, a stakeholder, a person. And understanding what are their unmet and unarticulated needs, and then using that as a launching point for fresh thinking. And how do we add value to that person?
Awais: 04:22 And so usually technology still has a part to play in that customer driven innovation paradigm, but it’s a supporting player. Really the main star of that is, “Who are your customers, who are your stakeholders, and what are their needs?” And so that’s where we started gravitating towards when we talked about what are the methods that might be complementary in this business innovation space?
Cameron: 04:46 Yeah, and I think that really speaks to kind of our sponsor needs, is that we have an incredible breadth of people coming to MITRE with problems: private sector, public sector, government; all over the place. Who, at the end of the day, they think they need these things at a very technical level, a very granular level. But a lot of the times, it’s just you need to redefine how you’re approaching the problem.
Awais: 05:07 Absolutely. And so much of an emphasis … So one of the main methodologies that we kind of focus on, even in the business innovation domain, is design thinking or human-centered design. And a lot of that places an emphasis on exploring that problem space, and really taking the time to understand who are the different stakeholders that are affected, what’s their operational context, what are their needs?
Awais: 05:35 And really how that translates even for our sponsors is first, as MITRE, making sure we understand what problem are we trying to solve for our sponsors. And as basic as that is, that is sometimes something that even in our project teams we don’t ask enough. We’re working on deliverables, but what’s the problem we’re trying to solve with those deliverables?
Awais: 05:55 And, frankly, in my experience it’s also helping our sponsors recognize that oftentimes they have customers or stakeholders that they need to meet the needs of, whether those are internal customers within the government, or citizens that are constituents. And sometimes getting them to think about this kind of customer centered approach of kind of, “What are their needs, and how do I tailor my government services and solutions to meet those needs?” That’s a muscle that sometimes needs to be exercised in our sponsor environments, as well.
Cameron: 06:29 I was hoping maybe you could speak to some of the actual tangible ways that we have gone about bringing business innovation to sponsor work, or just even internal to MITRE.
Awais: 06:40 Yeah. And, again, I will talk in generalities. But I mean, I think, a couple of different areas where we’ve kind of applied some of the ideas and the capability. One is simply in coaching our sponsor organizations to apply some of these techniques to solve their own problems, right?
Cameron: 06:57 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Awais: 06:57 So, it might be in the context of some type of digital transformation effort that they’re undergoing, it might be in the context of them needing to innovate in terms of how they deliver services to their constituents, it might be in the context of them just facing a really intractable problem, really challenging problem and needing to find different ways of approaching that.
Awais: 07:20 And so we’ll come in and we’ll actually coach them by facilitating working sessions where we have sponsors, different organizations within the sponsors, and MITRE folks, and other partners coming together and applying some of these techniques to explore that problem space, generate solutions, come up with prototypes—that type of thing.
Awais: 07:40 So a lot of it is just kind of hands-on coaching, facilitation support. And then for other sponsors it’s been more at a kind of a strategic level. One of the sponsors I’m thinking of, they already had … And I think a lot of sponsors have several offices in the organization that have an innovation tag associated with them.
Awais: 08:00 So it’s to say, “Well from a strategic point of view, how do you manage these different innovation-related efforts into a portfolio of things that’s contributing to a mission or an outcome, rather than each innovation office, so to speak, going off and kind of working on its own, or maybe even working cross purposes?” So it’s been kind of developing that innovation strategy for them.
Awais: 08:25 And then another thing that we’re starting to kind of work out, as well, and kind of provide as an offering is this idea of an assessment for your innovation ecosystem. So this idea that innovation is something … Even here within MITRE, in order for you to kind of have the environment where you feel comfortable, you even have things like the psychological safety to be able to try new things, and maybe fail at them, because that’s what innovation is about; there’s got to be a lot of other things around you that support you.
Awais: 08:56 Your leadership has to exhibit the right behavior, your incentives should be in the right place to encourage you to do that. And so part of what we want to offer is based off of best practice. What are those environmental considerations specific to a sponsor that they need to really influence in order to create that culture of innovation within their organization? So there’s just a few things
Cameron: 09:20 Actually, I really appreciate that you brought that up because that’s always been something I’ve been very curious about is there’s kind of like two dueling ideas. One is innovation can be forced, and the other one is trying to separate failure from innovation. So the first idea is there are organizations out there, big ones, multi- … Like Fortune 100 companies that think that if they just redesign their staircases and hallways, they’re going to force innovation and get people to talk to each other. But from what I’ve heard from our previous conversation, it sounds like innovation is not a product of your workplace in terms of the physical offices, it’s a product of your workplace in terms of the diversity of ideas being brought.
Awais: 10:02 Yeah, I think what you’re pointing to is that … Yeah, I totally agree that if any organization wants to be more innovative, it’s more than just standing up a lab, or setting up a physical … Although those are good things, and that’s not to say that there isn’t value in doing that; but sometimes that gets derisively called innovation theater.
Cameron: 10:22 Yeah.
Awais: 10:23 But the idea is that how to make that something which is sustainable? And really in order to do that, you have to look at a lot of the different enablers and barriers to innovation that we know from research. So I think of someone like Amy Edmundson out of Harvard, and she’s done so much research on teaming for innovation; so that’s actually one of the books that she has out. And she outlines these, based off of research, four things that you need to have.
Awais: 10:54 It’s kind of framing your innovation challenges to be inspiring to people, making sure you have diversity of perspective; innovation is a team sport. It’s very unlikely that you have one person that’s out there coming up with all the great ideas and executing on them; you need to have different perspectives. You need to have kind of the psychological safety, right?
Cameon: 11:15 Yeah.
Awais: 11:16 Innovation, by definition, is exploring kind of uncharted territory. And so you’re going to make some missteps, and you have to make sure that there’s an environment that fosters acceptance of putting yourself out there. And then she talks about … You mentioned failure, and there is a lot of literature and kind of slogans that are out there associated with the innovation of failing fast, but she talks about failing well and failing intelligently. So this idea that just because you have a failure doesn’t mean, “All right we’re innovative.” It’s this purposeful kind of … I call it “thinking like a scientist”, right—
Cameron: 11:51 Yeah.
Awais: 11:51 And saying, “Okay, think back to your high school or middle school science, you have a hypothesis, and you have a set of variables, and you try an experiment, and you’re trying to see if that experiment, controlling for other variables, moves the needle or not.”
Awais: 12:07 And I think that’s the type of thinking we need to apply. Obviously, we can’t apply it to the level of scientific rigor that we do in a lab within an organization, but it’s to say, “Hey, what if we tried something out, let’s keep our experiment small, and let’s be purposeful about what we’re trying to measure out of this. But let’s try it and see if it works, and that way, even if it fails, we’ve learned something, we know what we learned.”
Cameron: 12:27 Exactly. That’s the biggest thing I’ve always heard is that failure isn’t … Failure’s a very strange word. Because when we think of it, we think of it as a zero sum; you either did well or nothing good came of it. And the truth is when you’re in these organizations, even if your organization is profit driven, failure is just … It’s not even a road bump, it’s like learning that you took a detour, you found out something along that path, but now you have to go back to the main road and think about, “Where am I going to turn off again to find this thing I’m looking for?”
Awais: 12:58 Yeah, no I think that’s really well said. And I think that you’re right that private industry, particularly some of the tech companies that we hear about, I think they’ve leaned into that idea, and they’ve put it in mechanisms for their workforce to kind of embrace that. I think what’s interesting is in the public sector, this idea of government agencies or organizations failing, in any capacity, is something which just feels wrong, right?
Cameron: 13:30 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Awais: 13:30 It feels like okay we have been in a world where we have so much scrutiny on how agencies spend tax dollars and…
Cameon: 13:37 Exactly
Awais: 13:39 GAO reports, and IT reports, and things like that, it is a little bit of work that needs to be done to say, “How do these concepts translate into the public sector?” And they do translate, right?
Cameron: 13:51 Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Awais: 13:51 One of the things I’ve said is that some of these methods that we’re talking about, we need to position them as risk mitigation techniques. Because whether or not you’re taking small experiments or not, if you’re doing something which is new and groundbreaking, which a lot of government agencies are, you want to find out if something isn’t going to work, faster and cheaper, rather than waiting years, and hundreds of millions of dollars to figure out it’s not going to work. And so I think there’s some work that we found we just need to do in order to how to position some of these methods so that it translates to the public sector.
Cameron: 14:24 I think this all comes back to something that I’d actually like to segue into which is, you have a very interesting title at MITRE as the Capability Steward. And I think that speaks to your goal, your mission of bringing innovation as this thing that you’re shepherding through the company saying that failure, and conversation, and these things are all very good things. And even if we don’t see that upfront benefit, we definitely want to invest in it. And I was hoping you could maybe speak a little more to your day-to-day, maybe your journey becoming a Capability Steward.
Awais: 14:58 Yeah, and actually for me, personally, it’s one of my favorite titles at MITRE. Not just because I happen to have been lucky to be one, but I think that that idea of stewardship is really cool. Because a topic as broad as innovation, and even business innovation isn’t something which any one person or organization can, necessarily, claim to be kind of the owner of.
Awais: 15:22 You mentioned folks like Dan Ward, and there are plenty of other folks that are out there, our MIP program, the IALs [Innovation Area Leads] that are running them, that are in this innovation space. And so what I view my role as being is kind of, one building up the ideas and the supply of people who understand and have experience in some of these capabilities like design thinking, and lean startup within, obviously, our tech center, but also across MITRE, so that we can introduce this more to our sponsor spaces.
Awais: 15:55 It’s working with our portfolio and program folks to say, “Hey, if your sponsor is facing this type of challenge where, let’s say, they’re facing an intractable problem that they’ve been bumping their head up against, and looking for new ways of addressing that. Or maybe they’re in charge of a digital transformation and we want to help them think beyond that as just an IT problem, but really as, “How can you work differently?” Or maybe they’re standing up a new organization and trying to figure out what that organization can do such that it adds value.”
Awais: 16:26 I mean, those are the types of problem spaces where I try to talk to program and portfolio folks and say, “Hey, this is where something like a design thinking could help, or a business model canvas exercise might help, or lean startup techniques could help as a framework for how we introduce that to our sponsors.”
Awais: 16:46 But oftentimes I find myself having these great conversations with other folks across MITRE that are already thinking this way, and it’s a matter of highlighting and championing the work that they’re doing. And also, sometimes, people just have a natural instinct for this way of thinking, so it’s supplying them with the research, and the tools, and the techniques that are tried and tested, so that they can take that back to their teams and their sponsors to say, “Hey this is the way that we should be working.”
Cameron: 17:15 Yeah, that advocacy feels critical in any organization. Because it’s easy to think that this is truly something that people should have solved by now, or this is something that seems obvious to me on the ground level. But it’s always difficult to find where the formal literature, the formal backing for that thing is, or helping people know that like, “Even though I’ve built this great thing, there is a place that you can specifically go to reap these benefits.”
Awais: 17:39 Yeah, and actually one of the first things that we ended up doing, even before I had this Capability Steward title when it was kind of an emerging capability, is actually doing some research ourselves; myself and my colleague, Cynthia Gilmer. We led some research, and Marilyn Kupetz was a part of that, and Lynette Wilcox was a part of that. And we partnered with UVA Darden to explore how design thinking was being used in the government, what outcomes agencies that were using it were finding, and really starting to tackle this idea of, “How do we measure the effectiveness of that?”
Awais: 18:15 And part of that links to your point about advocacy, because both within MITRE as well as within our government environments, we can talk about these as being cool things for us to try, I say flippantly. But until we can actually demonstrate the value of them, and we can actually show kind of what’s the outcome that an agency stands to get by applying these methods, and how do we measure those, that’s really the language that a lot of our government agencies speak. And I think that that’s something that’s valuable for MITRE to do, is to kind of step in and be able to say, “Hey, we feel instinctively, and we know from the private sector, that these are things that can be successful, but how do we demonstrate that in kind of the public sector?”
Awais: 19:00 So between that research on design thinking, I’m… also have a very small role, but … participating, but just to put a plug into another research project being led by Dr. Justin Brunelle out of our Hampton office, is they’re looking at measuring the effectiveness of innovation cells across the government…so it’s beyond just design thinking. And it’s the same idea that if we can demonstrate how to measure success of these types of things, that’s a powerful thing in this idea of advocacy to show this is why you should be adopting these things.
Cameron: 19:33 Yes, I’ve got an opportunity to speak with Justin, in passing, and his work always comes up during the different MIP reviews, and it’s just absolutely fascinating to me. Maybe something I was kind of hoping that you could share with us, either in that space or just in terms of your own journey, is what are the kinds of things that people who are interested in this kind of work, what are things they can do now, whether at MITRE, or outside of MITRE to foster this new approach to innovation?
Awais: 20:01 That’s a really good question. I would say that there are two things that come to mind that I would want to pass along. The first is, again, this idea of getting curious about the problem space. Wherever you’re in, I think that there is a natural human tendency, particularly for folks that work at MITRE, where we are paid based off of expertise that we have; we want to jump to solutions, we want to solve a problem.
Awais: 20:24 And I think what I would encourage all of us to do is get curious about a problem, and talk to people about the problem, and really try to understand the stakeholders that are affected by the problem, and get their perspective on it. I’ll give you a very small way that this manifests itself. I was on a project one time where we were talking about the best way of engaging with stakeholders for interviews. And one thought was, “Well let’s just fly a bunch of them from the different sponsor field sites over to a headquarter site in DC here, and we can talk to them, and that’ll be more convenient, and cheaper, and that’d be great.”
Awais: 20:59 And then we had one team member … And he wasn’t talking about this from an innovation perspective, but just his experience, He said, “You know, I think it’s actually worth going out and visiting these people in these field offices where they are.” And his reasoning was that (1) they’ll feel more comfortable sharing information with you, but (2) you get to observe what their challenges are in their actual operational environment.
Awais: 21:22 And too often, especially for some of the agencies that we work with where we have a lot of … The real work gets done in the field, the knock is if you have these guys out in headquarters, whether that’s government folks or MITRE folks coming up with solutions for them, without really taking the time to understand what their operational challenges are, and something as simple as just going out and visiting them where they are, and observing kind of their challenges is powerful. So getting curious about a problem.
Awais: 21:50 And then the second thing I would say is adopting this experimentation mindset. I mean, that doesn’t have to be something which is huge, it could just be something as simple as, “You know, when I’m putting together this deliverable, let me try something different. Let me maybe structure it a different way than I’ve done it before. And let me follow the principles of experimentation, let me maybe incorporate that into an outline, and then share that outline with my sponsor, first, to get their feedback before I go spend six months writing to it.” For example.
Awais: 22:24 So this idea of kind of adopting this experimentation mindset, combined with getting curious about a problem, I think those are two things that anybody could apply that really embraces that ethos that we’re talking about for innovation.
Cameron: 22:37 And I think those are a lot of excellent nuggets to go out on just because those really can be applied anywhere.
Awais: 22:44 Yeah.
Cameron: 22:44 I’d like to take a brief moment to thank MITRE and the Knowledge Driven Enterprise for making the show possible. And, of course, I’d like to give a big thank you to you always for your incredible work, and also for coming on the show and sharing your experience.
Awais: 22:55 Awesome. Thanks Cameron, this has been a lot of fun.
Cameron: 24:18 Awesome.


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 19-2736

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