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
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