Jen Choi and Josh LeFevre and the power of “Yes, And”

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Jen Choi (Left), Cameron Boozarjomehri (Center), Josh LeFevre (Right)
Photo: 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. 

Innovation, much like improv, isn’t easy, but it can be a powerful way to bring people into a conversation they might typically avoid or feel excluded from. In our latest discussion with the Innovation Toolkit Team, Jen and Josh walk us through the power improvisation can have to start these conversations and how they refined their unique approach. Discover the lessons Jen and Josh learned and how you, too, can apply them to your organization!

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Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:15 Hello everyone, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge Driven Podcast, a show where I, your host, Cameron Boozarjomehri, have the good fortune of interviewing brilliant minds across MITRE. Today, I’ll be talking to Jen Choi and Josh LeFevre about innovative practices you can use on any team. Jen, would you like to introduce yourself?
Jen: 00:32 Sure. Thanks, Cameron, for having us here. This is super exciting. So my name is Jen Choi here at MITRE. I’m a multidisciplinary systems engineer. I’ve worked on projects from missile defense to now defense acquisition, but what brings me here today, is the work I do on Innovation Toolkit. So as an innovation coach, I help people understand what is innovation and how to do it? And Josh and I are going to step you through a practice that we did this summer with a group of engineers at MITRE. I don’t want to give it away now. So I’ll turn it over to Josh to introduce himself, too.
Josh: 01:04 Great. Thank you, Jen, and thank you, Cameron. Happy to be here. So here at MITRE, I’m an agile systems engineer. I’ve been able to apply many of these practices in private industry before joining MITRE—at Microsoft Apple, Boston Consulting Group, Delta, Capital One, among others. And when after joining MITRE and being introduced to Jen and the Innovation Toolkit, found a great fit and being able to explore the way of improving communication and innovation and government and MITRE spaces.
Cameron: 01:35 It’s great to have you both here. So I think a lot of people, if they’ve heard other episodes of the KDP, they’re familiar with the ITK, the Innovation Toolkit, but why don’t you guys give us an idea of what you do on the ITK and also what we’ll be talking more about today?
Jen: 01:50 Sure. So with Innovation Toolkit, we run a lot of innovation workshops where we use design thinking and human centered design tools to help teams in various stages of problem solving, whether they’re trying to articulate a problem or whether they’re trying to prototype a solution. And one of the things that we do when we have these workshops is we always start with some collaboration ground rules. One of them is always going to be what we shorthand as Yes, and. So the concept of Yes, and is actually borrowed from improv. So similar to when you see a comedy sketch and you’ve got a bunch of comedians on the stage that are just making it up as they go, they all agree that whatever a character says, they all accept as true. So they build off of each other and hopefully make the audience laugh.
Jen: 02:38 So in our workshops, we introduced Yes, and to say, “Hey, when we’re in this space together, we want to actively listen to each other, affirm what we’ve heard and then build off of what someone says.” This creates a coalescing effect of people building off of ideas to each other, and you just start gaining a lot of momentum. And what we found is that it really helps to spark creativity, create more trust in teams, and we really have a lot of success in our workshops. So once we all went virtual, a lot of the times we notice in our meetings, “Hey, having Yes, and could be really helpful. So we had an idea of, okay, is there a way to bring Yes, and out of the workshop and into everyday interactions?
Josh: 03:26 Yes. So when I heard about the opportunity to apply Yes, and within MITRE, I jumped at the opportunity to work with Jen and her team to see how we could apply it outside of just the workspace and more in our conversations and other interactions. Before joining MITRE, I had seen this successfully used in ethnographic research in Microsoft to promote divergent thinking on how to solve problems, as well as working with individuals one-on-one in academic coaching to find solutions and to build consensus around where they’re headed in life and how they want to set and achieve goals. So we hope you enjoy joining us in that experiment today.
Cameron: 04:08 Oh, so now I’m going to be part of this experience?
Jen: 04:08 So the best way to talk about Yes, and is to do it. So Cameron, if you’re up for it, we thought we would demo what does this look like for your listeners? So a quick exercise we can do is called Remember Mexico. So, full disclosure, none of us have all traveled together to Mexico together. However, for this exercise, we are going to collaboratively remember a memory of us traveling to Mexico together. So I can kick us off and then it can go to Josh and then to you Cameron, and maybe we’ll go through three rounds of this to build this collective memory about our trip.
Cameron: 04:46 Sounds good.
Jen: 04:47 All right. So guys, remember that time we went to Mexico, and our flight was completely delayed, and we never got off the runway?
Josh: 04:56 Yes. And then we had to go stay in a hotel for a week in the middle of nowhere.
Cameron: 05:02 And for some reason, both of them were completely out of pretzels.
Jen: 05:05 Oh my gosh. Yeah. So instead of pretzels, we had to have hot dogs. Who had hot dogs there?
Josh: 05:11 But what I do remember is once we had the hot dogs, we found a local pool and just had our own pool party.
Cameron: 05:17 Yeah. And it was really convenient that for some reason, everywhere we went in Mexico, it was just hot dogs and pool parties just all the way down.
Jen: 05:25 Yeah. And then it was even crazier. Remember that time when we intentionally tried to find a restaurant without hot dogs, and then we somehow ended up on the recording of the popular show that was featuring hot dogs and we were like, what is this?
Josh: 05:39 Yes. And they tried to interview us, but none of us spoke Spanish.
Cameron: 05:43 But for some reason they always understood the word hot dogs.
Jen: 05:48 And then it was really interesting how the salsa combinations that they put on the hot dog—that was different.
Josh: 05:54 Yes. And the hot dogs, tasted way than I ever remembered in the US.
Cameron: 05:59 And on top of all that, we learned so much about Mexican culture and how it integrates with hot dogs.
Jen: 06:07 Okay, I think that was a couple of rounds.
Cameron: 06:10 We went hard in the hot dog pain.
Jen: 06:13 I want the hot dog and I like a pescatarian.
Cameron: 06:19 Maybe it’s just because I missed lunch.
Jen: 06:22 Yes, Cameron, you did great. I love the way how you listen to the story and we kept that continual thread growing, and we all just went with it. That was awesome.
Cameron: 06:34 So I’m actually curious, do you guys usually start from a random place or do you try to stay a little more pointed so that you’re not having engineers just talking about hot dogs for 20 minutes?
Jen: 06:45 Well, so that’s really interesting. This summer when Team Toolkit decided to try this experiment of how do we bring Yes, and from the workshop into our virtual meetings? We talked about this. So in our workshops, we typically have some exercise that gets people more in that creative mindset and maybe in that case, we’ll have a prompt that’s a little bit more relevant to the problem that we’re solving. In this case, with our workshop, we semi-randomly assembled a group of about a half a dozen engineers. And we intentionally decided: we are going to be very light on instructions, pretty high on ambiguity, and just let people jump in and experiment. So we kicked off the first of four series of our online workshops and in the very first one, almost within the first five minutes, we just asked all participants to do a similar Yes, and exercise. Actually, I’d be really interested for Josh as one of our participants to hear… If you can share a little bit more about that very first session and what it was like just jumping into these exercises.
Josh: 07:51 Yeah. So, when I received the invite that Team Toolkit wanted to do this Yes, and workshop series. I was super excited. I wanted to be in on it and I wanted to see how it would be applied to conversations that we have here at MITRE. When I joined the first session, I was a little taken aback because we just jumped right into creating a Yes, and story. I was expecting some more instruction initially, but having worked in private industry and with this, I had decided let’s just go with it and let’s have fun. And what I noticed throughout that first session is while the stories similar to this, Remember Mexico, story we just shared, did become silly that there developed a bond of trust between individuals on how to craft and shape that story that led it to be more cohesive over time, and there seemed to be more of a rhythm and unified thought process that was developed through those conversations.
Cameron: 08:51 Yeah. Actually something I’m appreciating from just our experiences, it seems like the Yes, and is less about actually coming up with innovative ideas and just building the trust that allows people who have good ideas to actually step up and say, or share the ideas they think will be the most successful.
Josh: 09:07 I agree with that. I think part of it is seeing all ideas as using air quotes here “equal,” but then also “important” and through Yes, and the key part of it is that you’re building on something that has been placed before you so that you can explore that divergent area of innovation space. Then down the road to you can choose or select the best pieces.
Jen: 09:31 Yeah. And to build off what Josh said, typically when we are trying to create an innovation, so something new with impact, it’s really unlikely that your very first idea is going to be the mature idea that leads to that innovation. And it’s this process of building off of each other and getting to that co-creation of a better idea that is going to have some traction and some impact later on. So, that’s really cool, you picked up on that, Cameron.
Cameron: 09:58 Well, I’m glad I figured it out. I cracked the code of Yes, and. But I think something that is important to get into, this is definitely not something unique to MITRE. This isn’t even something unique to engineering. I mean, it’s a whole comedy bit, but maybe you can give a little more insights into how people who aren’t used to using improv comedy or improv in general in their work, how they can build on what you guys have learned and discussed here and maybe use some resources you can share with them.
Jen: 10:27 Sure. So as part of an experiment in week three, we had a twist. So in the first two weeks, as Josh mentioned, we saw a lot of trust building with the participants and people getting looser and having more fun and then in week three, we asked everyone, “Bring a coworker, bring a colleague.” So we doubled in size. And what was interesting is we saw different types of behavior. So the group that had already been with us in week one and two, they easily jumped into Yes, and. They had rapport with each other and they were having a good time. And we noticed our week three participants, truthfully being a little like wallflowers. They were much more reticent, less likely to jump in and we were really surprised by this. So of course, we invited them into the conversation and things loosened up, but as experimenters, we were not expecting that.
Jen: 11:16 So the takeaway from that is here at MITRE, we are engineers. We’re not comedians, although some of us might crack a good joke and we know that with innovation, having high trust on your team is critical even more so in this virtual environment. So we spend time in our experimental sessions talking about, okay, how might you do this in a virtual interaction? So number one, using your video, you can nod along, you can show through your nonverbal movements that you were agreeing with them and that you’re listening to them. So not looking at your phone, having your notifications turned off, there’s also some practical things you can do in your written communications. So literally using the words Yes, and in your interactions with others, whether that’s email or just through voice…. Oftentimes when we have email exchanges with others when they’re looking for our input, we may just immediately give them an answer without stopping to pause and affirm, okay, what I’m hearing is blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, or, yes, I appreciate that you’ve reached out yada, yada, yada.
Jen: 12:21 So really doing that active listening and affirming first. Josh, I know you’ve got a lot of tips too. Do you want to share some?
Josh: 12:28 Yeah, you raised a lot of good points, Jen. And building on top of those, when we invited the new individuals in week three to join the larger session, a couple of things that we noticed, which I think is important for anyone wanting to try Yes, and is that sometimes individuals may see, perceive Yes, and as an activity to be the idea fairy and scatter ideas. However, what we noticed from the individuals who joined, who hadn’t been present before, that as those who had participated in such activities of Yes, and and building those relationships, invited them to participate, that sentiment seemed to disappear. Then individuals began to feel recognized and notice that their ideas were important and heard, and they didn’t feel trampled on and wanted to engage more fully in the subsequent Yes, and sessions.
Josh: 13:24 So one of the tips that I took away from that is no matter where you’re at in the journey implementing Yes, and, if you can be the example and invite others to share their stories and then reinforce the value of the ideas they’re sharing by using Yes, and in your own interactions and invites individuals to participate and feel heard and contribute more fully.
Cameron: 13:50 I think one more thing I like to ask is, especially with engineers, it seems like some of us are more eager to get up and have these sharing sessions but others of us, even if we are happy to share, we’re less vocal and Yes, and seems like a place where being more vocal will lead to more involvement. That doesn’t mean that you as an individual, shouldn’t feel like you can be included just because you don’t feel talking as much. Do you ever have to balance people who want to be involved, but aren’t as vocal or active with the other people who are probably more eager to just get ideas out there and share more of their opinions in the creation process?
Jen: 14:27 I love this question, Cameron. This is almost a perfect segue to another tip we haven’t shared yet, which is when you do observe some of your teammates being quieter or not speaking up as much, you can practice Yes, and by inviting them into the conversation. So what this would look like is, “Hey Cameron, what do you think?” Or an email, “What are your thoughts, Josh?” And when you actually use someone’s name, you’re extending… You’re passing the mic to them to say, “What do you think? Or jump into the conversation.” And it allows them an entry point, whereas otherwise they may have just continued keeping quiet.
Cameron: 15:02 You’ve given a few examples of places where this has really been helpful, I think you mentioned Microsoft and academic coaching. Are there any other places where you’re hoping to see Yes, and catch on?
Josh: 15:14 Yeah, I hope that it catches on throughout MITRE. In my own interactions and working on various projects by consciously thinking about the application of Yes, and in my projects, I’ve noticed a shift in those I work with to begin doing the same, whether they are actively trying, or just through example in the way the team operates, are developing that approach to innovation and conversation. So that is great.
Jen: 15:41 Yeah. Some things I would offer up, too, is with Team Toolkit, our vision is for everybody to be an innovator. So we exist because we want to democratize innovation. So we would love to see everyone using Yes, and. Engineers, non-engineers, adults, kids, schools, work everywhere. So we have fortunately gotten a lot of requests from our participants where they’re like, “Hey, can you do another workshop series?” We’re talking within MITRE with some of our leadership to see if we can do this at a bigger scale. We also one Team Toolkit, have a public faxing website and blogs. So we’ve written articles. So definitely check out itk.mitre.org/blog. We’ve got articles saying, what is the Yes, and? Some practical tips for using Yes, and. And we actually have an article that came out today about this experiment itself. So there’s plenty of ways to learn more about Yes, and. And personally, I think it can be used in almost all situations where you are working with the team.
Cameron: 16:45 Yeah. I can definitely say as a task, lead myself, since I learned about the ITK and all the different tools you guys have available, and again, tools that are available to the public, this isn’t just a MITRE thing. You can go to the ITK website. We will have a link in the show notes for this episode, and there’ll be lots of different ways for you to leverage all the lessons that Josh and Jen and another people who collaborate with the ITK on how to innovate, not just things that have to do with your project or company, but can even help you just in helping you relate better to people around you. I think we’re getting close to out of time, but Jen and Josh, is there anything else you’d like to share before we go?
Jen: 17:18 Thank you again, Cameron so much for having us. It’s really a delight to be here. We’re always eager to help others. So if folks have questions or want to learn more, feel free to shoot us an email, itk@mitre.org.
Josh: 17:30 And thank you Cameron, for having us. I agree with Jen. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out and we’d be more than happy to work with you and your team to develop these practices in your own workspace.
Cameron: 17:42 Awesome. A big thank you to everyone who makes the KDE possible, a big thank you to MITRE, and of course, a huge thank you to you, Jen and Josh, for taking the time to teach us all about Yes, and and how we can use it to innovate.
Jen: 17:54 Thanks for having us hope to chat with you again soon.
Josh: 17:56 Thanks.

 

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.

© 2020 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 20-3108

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Nov 15, 2020

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