In the 1980s Curtis R. Carlson was the heir apparent at Sarnoff.

Everyone expected that when Jim Carnes retired, Curt Carlson would

take over as CEO. But no, Carlson got plucked to be the president and

CEO of Sarnoff’s parent company, SRI International, and he and his

wife, Dudley Carlson (then the children’s librarian at Princeton

Public Library), moved from Princeton to Menlo Park, California.

Once there, he honed his ideas on innovation and gave internal

workshops on the five disciplines of innovation. These workshops

turned into a book, "Innovation: the Five Disciplines for Creating

What Customers Want" (co-written with William W. Wilmot, published in

2006 by Crown Business).

Carlson’s former employer, Sarnoff (the descendent of the original RCA

Laboratories), has an innovation list that includes color television,

HDTV, liquid crystal displays, the yellow first-down marker in

television football, disposable hearing aids, and digital direct

broadcast satellite and TV.

And SRI, 60 years old, does client-sponsored R&D for government,

commercial, and foundation clients. SRI was the launching pad for such

innovations as the computer mouse, Windows, hypertext,

videoconferencing, machine-readable numbers at the bottom of bank

checks, tele-robotic surgery, smart materials such as artificial

muscle, and natural language speech recognition software.

Carlson contends that innovation does not come from a "lone genius in

a garage" but from collaborative teams and a disciplined process.

Using many examples from his years at Sarnoff, he claims that today’s

world is by far the best time for technology, ever.

"Every area is open to innovation – the next generation of the

Internet, the transformation of healthcare, the ability of information

technology to treat each person as an individual, alternative energy.

It is also the most competitive time ever," says Carlson in a

telephone interview. "We have all these opportunities, if you have the

right skills to see the opportunities and innovate."

Innovation, he claims, is a bigger idea than quality. "If you are

buying a product, an automobile, you expect the quality to be there,"

says Carlson. "Quality is only one part of innovation. You want much

more than that. You want it to handle well, to be attractive, and have

appealing features."

The son of a draftsman and an administrative assistant, Carlson grew

up in Providence, Rhode Island, the third child and the first in his

family to attend college. His father had been a professional

violinist, and Curt was playing violin with the Rhode Island

Philharmonic at age 15. "There were six of us in a 1,000 square-foot

house, and I practiced five to eight hours a day. I know my parents

had headaches and times when they were feeling bad, but never once did

they ask me not to practice." Still an avid musician, he plays with

chamber groups now.

Carlson’s music study influenced his innovation principles. For

instance, he emphasizes the importance of starting right the first

time. Just as it is hard to correct a piece of music, once you have

played the wrong version, so it is hard to unlearn bad habits in the

workplace. And though most players like to go over the parts they do

well, they should focus instead on parts that give trouble. Practicing

the parts of the piece that you don’t know translates, in the

workplace, to using a value proposition to reduce risk.

Carlson graduated in 1967 with a physics major from the Worcester

Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and earned a PhD from Rutgers.

He spent his early career on Fisher Place, first for the RCA Sarnoff

Laboratories, then for the new owners, GE, then as head of new

ventures at Sarnoff Corporation, where he helped form more than a

dozen new companies. He started and helped lead the team that, with

other companies, set the U.S. standard for HDTV and shared a 1997 Emmy

Award for that. The team also won an Emmy in 2000.

Working at RCA Laboratories should have been a dream come true,

Carlson says, to hang around with smart motivated people all day long

But scientists at RCA had funding to do research on problems that did

not have a good business model and as a result, says Carlson,

"everything I did under RCA failed" In contrast, "everything

professionally important to me under SRI has been a success."

He learned what a small, committed team can do in 1986, when he was a

mid-level manager, responsible for a team of about 70 researchers.

That year GE bought RCA, and the lab was sold to SRI International,

which named it as a separate enterprise, the Sarnoff Corporation.

Because funding at Sarnoff was neither automatic nor assumed, Sarnoff

researchers had to develop business to pay salaries, a 180-degree

change. They had to learn quickly about customer needs, business

development, business models, and customer value. It was a crisis, but

it was also a fabulous professional challenge. "We had the opportunity

to decide how we wanted to spend our lives and our careers," says

Carlson. "We wanted to make a difference."

Every other Monday from 5 to 9 p.m., they met for pizza and honed

ideas on business development and best practices. "These pizza

meetings convinced me that understanding the process of innovation in

the human sense was fundamental," says Carlson. "We discovered that if

you work on things you really care about, that someone cares about,

you can raise money. I saw that if you did certain things properly,

significant things could happen. As we went along, I kept on studying

companies and organizations that were doing things well and brought

that back. What worked, we kept. What didn’t, we got rid of."

His conclusions morphed into a series of internal workshops that grew

into "outside" workshops for clients and prospective clients. "Because

of my television work, I had worked for the British Broadcasting

Corporation, and the BBC came to me and asked us to share the

innovation talks with them. They were the first `outsiders.’ These

workshops are now best sellers, and I like doing them. We make

friends, and we learn the best practices of the world’s great

organizations. At a Who’s Who of companies, we see what people do."

Carlson has some "unfavorite" words, and they include leadership,

management, and entrepreneurship. Using the word leadership, for

instance, causes unnecessary anxiety because it invokes great

hard-to-imitate leaders like Churchill and Gandhi. "How can anyone

live up to these examples? But all of us have been a passionate

champion for some activity – teaching soccer, playing music, being on

a sports team, or pursuing a hobby. That feeling is something we can

build on and extend into a new opportunity or project."

He has a similar aversion to the word management. "Most managers still

fill the traditional `boss role,’ an industrial age concept that

evokes feelings of hierarchy and control. It won’t attract the best

people. Clearly, champions are managers too."

He also avoids using the word "entrepreneur," which comes with

considerable Silicon Valley baggage. Though an entrepreneur is

sometimes thought of as a risk taker, successful entrepreneurs are not

risk takers, but risk reducers.

Carlson objects to how his editor relegated his diatribe on these and

other words to a footnote. "We have never used the term `change

culture,’ but we might say, would you like to make a bigger impact,

work with some of the best people, and learn some skills to make you

more valuable? The way you talk to technical folks is so important."

What does he tell people who say they have no time to apply the

innovation principles because they are too busy running the business?

"That you are going to go much slower, and that you will probably go

out of business. The lifetime of the top 500 companies is now down to

12 to 15 years. These are big companies. I find that a stunning

result." – Barbara Fox

How We Won the Emmy

As the program manager for developing the high-definition television

(HDTV) prototype innovation at Sarnoff, Norm Goldsmith had his work

cut out. We needed to develop a full working model of our system in

just over one year, or we would be disqualified. Billions of dollars

of business were at stake.

The problem Norm faced was that our team KNEW it would take a year and

a half to build that system, not the 13 months we had. We were facing

a mutiny. Many thought it was foolish even to think that an

all-digital approach would work in the first place. We would have to

pull together engineering teams from four other companies.

In spite of all the pessimism, Norm went to work putting together a

detailed innovation plan. With Glenn Reitmeier and Terry Smith, they

helped each person think through their subtask to make sure the right

people would work on them, then called the team of 60 engineers

together in the auditorium.

Covering the entire front of the room was a detailed computer printout

of the innovation plan, with every task that had to be completed, how

each task interacted, when each task had to be done, and the name of

the person responsible for each task. A bright red line down the

middle of the chart represented the "critical path." If you were on

the critical path and you were late, you would get lots of attention.

As the team entered the room, you could feel everyone’s pessimism, if

not outright enmity. People had that "you must be kidding" look on

their faces. Glenn started by giving a technical pep talk to help

convince everyone that it was possible. That was fine, but everyone

still knew there wasn’t enough time to build it.

Next Norm calmly described how the printout was constructed, how he

had taken everyone’s plan as proposed but with a few exceptions. You

could feel the team members say to themselves, "Exceptions?" Then he

said, "Bruce, I think you were too aggressive in your plan, so I gave

you another week. And Charlie, you need to integrate several other

people’s work. I gave you an extra two weeks." Norm, Glenn, and Terry

went around the room going through the tasks, one at a time. Not once

did they shorten anyone’s plan. When he was done, he pointed out that

the plan showed we would miss our deadline by just two weeks. You

could feel the amazement in the room. We were close.

Then he said, "What do you think? If we work together can we find a

way to make those two weeks and deliver the system on time?" Much to

their amazement, the team members cautiously nodded their heads yes.

A new, final plan would be created, identifying the most critical

elements and moving resources to those tasks as they showed up on the

critical path. When someone needed to take over the system to test

their part, they would be King for a Day and wear a Burger King crown

to show they were in charge.

That was the beginning of an incredible journey. We set up an isolated

development lab in a building on the edge of the campus, a "skunk

works." We brought in food three times a day and set up cots. The team

worked around the clock, eventually ramping up to three overlapping

shifts a day, seven days a week. People were working 70 and 80-hour

weeks, but they were also achieving the near impossible. It was a

classic "The Soul of a New Machine" setting.

The team performed amazingly, but several weeks before the deadline

and with victory in sight, the equipment failed to work. We had fallen

off the critical path. Our schedule slipped, but fortunately so did

our deadline – the competing teams and the testing labs were having

their problems too. Even with the delayed deadline, the system stayed

broken. We were beside ourselves. Finally someone checked a single

connection and replaced it.

Miraculously the system started to work, but not perfectly. The

remaining few weeks had the entire team literally hunting for needles

in a haystack – looking for a single digital bit that was wrong out of

hundreds of millions that were fine. The debugging was so intense that

planning was an hour-by-hour exercise. Glenn meticulously kept track

of the debugging efforts on a huge whiteboard.

The problems were fixed one by one and eventually the system was "good

enough" to ship to the testing lab in Washington, DC. The prototype

continued to work over the next few months during the FCC tests, and

it achieved the best picture quality among the competing systems. The

team had achieved an amazing result.

Eventually key parts of the system were included in the final HDTV

system for the United States, and the team won an Emmy Award, the

highest award in the nation for broadcasting excellence.

– Curt Carlson

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