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Gray Matter Podcast | Conversation with Drs. Curt Carlson and Ian M. Colrain: The Discipline of Innovation



MRIGlobal’s Gray Matter podcast digs in with experts to discuss the science and innovations that are solving the world’s greatest challenges, and why this work matters in your life.

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Transcript — Conversation with Drs. Curt Carlson and Ian M. Colrain: The Discipline of Innovation

00;00;00;26 – 00;00;18;27 INTRO: Dean Gray  

I’m Dean Gray, chief operating officer at MRIGlobal. And this is Gray Matter, the podcast, where we dig in with experts to discuss the science and innovations that are solving the world’s greatest challenges and why this work matters in your life. 

00;00;18;27 – 00;00;43;13 Dean Gray  

Welcome, everyone, to Gray Matter. And this is an exciting episode we have for you today. I’ve got two guests with me, Doctors’ Curt Carlson and Ian Colrain. And we are going to talk about the discipline of innovation before we jump into that topic. I’d really appreciate it if you two would introduce yourself. Curt, let’s let’s start with you. 

00;00;43;20 – 00;02;09;20 Curt Carlson  

Well, I’m Curt Carlson. I was the president and CEO of SRI International, where Ian and I  worked together for a long time. And when I went to SRI, I had been family for 20 years. It’s a  prestigious place. It’s the computer mouse and many things came from. But the way people  were working wasn’t working anymore. The world had changed and we needed to collaborate  in a new way and we developed everybody at 

SRI worked together. We developed a method for value creation and innovation that took a  group that had been failing for 20 years. And we grew to two and a half, almost three times,  and we learned how to create major innovations like high definition television. Our teams won  two Emmys, Intuitive Surgical, that’s about $100 billion company Siri, which was bought by  Steve Jobs directly. 

That’s kind of an interesting story here. I have Steve Jobs come over and buy your company  personally. So my career has been basically about how do we develop better methods for  helping people change the world in a positive way by creating major innovations. So I  remember lots of things. I was in President Obama’s Innovation Council, was on the Innovation  Council in Singapore with Lee Kuan Yew. 

So I’ve gotten to see a lot of the world in. And the constant theme is always, how do we do a  better job? How do we create more significant innovation that will make the world a better  place? 

00;02;10;12 – 00;02;15;25 Dean Gray  

That’s excellent. Thank you. Were honored to have you with us today. Ian Colrain please  introduce yourself. 

00;02;16;01 – 00;03;14;04 Ian M. Colrain  

So I’m Ian. I’m now nearly three months into being the president and CEO of MRIGlobal. Prior to that, I had 20 plus years at SRI many of them under Curt’s leadership. Originally from 

Australia and originally an academic and then I know, I guess I’m a recovering academic and  one of the things that I learned at SRI I was to to always try to have an impact, make an impact  do work that’s going to change the world. 

And, you know, so I had a part of its mission statement was to to to to change the world. And  it’s sort of a bold claim, first small research institute that, you know, many people haven’t heard  of. But when, you know, Curt was saying when you when you’ve invented the mouse, when  you’ve invented robotic surgery, when you’ve invented speech analysis, automatic speech  analysis, you’ve changed the world. 

00;03;14;09 – 00;03;14;19 Dean Gray  


00;03;15;12 – 00;03;19;01 Ian M. Colrain  

And I’m looking to be able to do that at MRIGlobal as well. 

00;03;19;01 – 00;04;57;27 Dean Gray  

Yeah. We’re fortunate to have you. Thank you, Ian. You know, we also so we we do some pretty incredible research at the Institute and Disease Diagnostics, Pharmaceutical Sciences, threat detection, bio surveillance, other areas that you’re both very familiar with. And you know, yesterday, Curt, we you get a cross-section of some of our best and brightest in the workshop that you conducted. 

And we also spent hours going over a lot of the research portfolios yesterday as well. And innovation is something that is it’s expected by our staff and on our programs, but we found it internally. I think often it’s difficult to describe. It can be difficult to teach, I think quantify and then also align with strategy. And so Curt Ian, when he came on board, he shared almost immediately with a number of us your book Innovation The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want that you wrote with collaborator William Willmott and there is so much in that book that I appreciate. 

I’ve become a big fan of this in a short amount of time, and I’d like to use this book as a starting point for talking about how we can take what is currently a high performing organization and then utilize your process to help drive us toward developing that innovation capability across the institute. And I wonder, you know, thinking about that and where you started with the origins of the book, can you define what was need for the book? 

What was the need for the five disciplines of innovation initially? 

0;04;57;27 – 00;06;37;16 Curt Carlson  

Well, what we find, what Ian and I found at SRI or I would like it, MRI was brilliant people who are there because they want to make a serious contribution to the world. That’s what motivates these people. They want to make a real contribution. And what we found is that the practices that were being used because the world is changed, have to be more efficient and more effective. 

And so that for the whole, the broader team of SRI and including Ian and everybody we all worked on, how could we actually improve our collective intelligence, basically, of our teams to solve bigger, more important problems? So by doing that, you, you, you do two things, one of 

which you can track. Then even, you know, more great people because that’s what people  want. 

Your company or your enterprise becomes more successful. But I think the reason that I teach now, I teach it to universities. Now I’m so Ian following your footsteps backwards, I guess. Is that Northeastern WPI, Worcester Polytech. The reason I teach is because, again, in these skills is life transforming. We learned that when you have these skills, you can make an impact. 

People seek you out. You work hard, but you work with great people. You have fun. And when you go to retirement home, you look back and you say, well, I worked with great people and I made a positive contribution to the world. So the motivation was, yes, it was from a business point of view, but it also from a very human point of view of giving people the life skills so they can have meaning and success in their life. 

00;06;37;24 – 00;06;52;17 Dean Gray  

Yeah. So really the process and the principles, not just being strictly something that was going to be implemented at work for professional growth of definitely for personal and for kind of a self-actualization as you go. 

00;06;52;29 – 00;07;07;28 Curt Carlson  

Well, exactly right. So, you know, the wonderful session we had with your team yesterday, I’m up for that was basically one of the conclusions is that these are not just professional skills. These are skills that actually apply to every part of your life. 

00;07;08;20 – 00;07;18;16 Dean Gray  

Ian When, you think back on working with with Curt earlier. When were your first, some of the first trainings that you had in this area and how did it affect you initially? 

00;07;19;23 – 00;09;03;23 Ian M. Colrain  

Well, as I said, I came to SRI from academia, being at Stanford, being at the University of Melbourne and a really good schools dealing with some incredibly brilliant and talented people. But when I came to SRI, it, it I realized I was now in an environment where you were measured not just by how many papers you probably saw, how many conference presentations you did, but what impact you were having. 

And something that really stuck with me that Curt said possibly within the first one or two meetings that I had with him. And, you know, I was much younger and he was sort of scary. So, you know, it was sort of I was a little hesitant to approach him at first, but and that is that that all important problems are interesting but not all interesting problems are important. 

And that really shaped how I approached research and that took me from doing fairly esoteric, well-respected, well cited research on EEG features of the sleeping brain to work on the impact of alcohol abuse and alcoholism on sleep and the brain, and what the interactions of those two systems were. And that led to, you know, 20 plus years of great relationship with the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse and doing really important and impactful work. 

And without that refocus, I still would have been working on interesting problems, but they wouldn’t have necessarily been important ones.

00;09;03;23 – 00;09;24;01 Dean Gray  

Yeah. So you know, that, that then the first thing that comes into my mind is how can you tell the difference, you know, with, with, with this process that we’re talking about, too. What are some of the questions that you ask yourself to be able to define what the difference is between something that’s interesting and most things are interesting versus what’s important? 

00;09;24;23 – 00;10;42;03 Curt Carlson  

Oh, yes, just to amplify to what Ian said, because it really is fundamental or it’s what people really want to do. If they understand how to do it, they want to make an impact. They want to make contribution. So it was one of our biggest motivational tools that I saw. And it’s true of them, right, too. I mean, that’s what the staff wants to do once they know how. 

And part of what we did at SRI and we’re doing here is we’re giving the staff additional skills. So it’s not doesn’t seem so scary or so hard or so impossible. It’s a process that you can learn and and and make have an impact on. The simplest way to think of impact is the number of people. It helps the positive impact that has on the number of people. 

So I mean, there are things where you want to help individual people, but in general, Ian came up with a major new therapeutic for addiction or some symptom of it to mediate that. That’s a big deal. Then you’re impacting potentially at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. So with this kind of things that we went after were things that could do that and, they were very motivating for staff and you could attract the best people to work on them. 

00;10;42;03 – 00;11;39;13 Dean Gray  

Yeah, one thing we discussed yesterday too, and what I’ve really got from from your book was the idea of always thinking about innovation as creating value and everybody has a customer, you creating value for a customer. And that being one of the differentiators between working on something that you find is interesting versus something that is really important as described and impactful. 

And you know, in that area of value creation, this this idea of a value proposition, when I first heard that term years ago, I thought, this is not make sense to me. Like the idea of a value proposition, you know, you have to go back and there are many things in your book that I appreciated in that you’re using words very carefully, and if something is thrown out, it is not used as jargon. 

You’re explaining it very carefully, like the words matter and how it’s described. And could you go through, please, the the idea of the value creation for the customer, but a value proposition and what it really is? 

00;11;39;13 – 00;14;38;11 Curt Carlson  

Well, when used to work for two very big companies that were successful in their own right and then we became part of SRI, the part that I was at and one of those big companies was sold to SRI. And when I was in the big companies, they gave me millions of dollars to spend. And I was frankly very good at it. 

And then we became part of SRI part of our job was to actually create new knowledge and  then commercialize it to be successful. And I learned we learned that we didn’t know how to 

do that. So a team of us got together every two weeks over pizza and coke and we dedicated  ourselves to figuring out how to do this new job that we had. 

And we discovered that most of the things that were written about it didn’t help. And it was kind of a walk in the desert for several years. But the team eventually figured out things that made a huge difference, and we started to grow. And eventually I became CEO because we were growing so fast and most of the rest of the company was not. 

So what is the value proposition is probably the most fundamental idea that applies to everything you do, whether you’re buying a car or you’re developing a new innovation. And we tried lots of different definitions and they were too complicated. That just didn’t work. And we we finally settled on just four things that to start every innovation, it’s not the whole story, but you start with it. 

What’s the important end user or customer need? What are you trying to do for somebody or some part of society? The second is, what’s the approach you have to have solution if you had a problem. So the second one has to be this the approach or the working hypothesis you have, and you want that to be a sustainable solution. 

You’re just not trying to solve the problem. You want to have it go out into the world to make an  impact that’s sustainable. The third one is, does it matter? So what the value of of a proposal is, are benefits over costs? And there’s a mix of both of those. And the last question is, how does it compare to what people are doing or the competition? 

So just for questions, need approach benefits for cost competition. Most four questions applied any I would argue any any situation where you’re addressing an issue for another person or for yourself. So if you buy a car or you have a need for a kind of car, you evaluate the different competitors or find an approach that satisfies you and that has the benefits per cost you want. And innovation, it’s much more hard, difficult because answering those questions tends to be very elusive. 

And that’s what we spent yesterday with your team doing was, okay, we have these four concepts. We agree, we have to answer them now. We have to figure out how does what we’re doing fit into them so we can do something that actually would contribute value to society. 

00;14;38;17 – 00;15;04;04 Dean Gray  

Yeah. You know, part of it is intuitive when you go through it and you hear it described like that, you think, well, yeah, of course. But it’s not because. I think that what we saw happening and as I was reading through the book and what we saw with the teams yesterday is that there tended to be a focus on one of the four questions, more so than all four of them. 

Right. I mean, Ian, did you see that yesterday, too? Because I know you were playing the final  moderator of whether or not something would be funded or not. 

00;15;04;15 – 00;16;58;15 Ian M. Colrain  

Most of the pitches that we got yesterday dealt with at most three of the four. And without all four, you don’t have a coherent argument. And as you know, Curt made the point yesterday, if you change one, that has a ripple effect and you need to change the other three. So if the benefits all of a sudden become more compelling, that is going to potentially change your approach.

Maybe not the need so much, but it will certainly change how you are viewed relative to your competition. If the competition changes, then you absolutely need to revamp all of them. You know, the advantage that we have at MRIGlobal, though, is that most of the problems that we’re dealing with, in fact, I have yet to find one in three months that is not in this category are important problems and that have a major impact on a large number of people, some of them potentially the whole population, some of them smaller numbers of critical assets that the US government may be deploying. 

So unlike other places, we don’t have to go looking for important problems. One of our advantages is that we have a reputation of being able to solve important problems and we need to stay focused on being a solutions company. And I think this is the big benefit of the value proposition approach because it really does focus on not not identifying a problem, not researching a problem, but but solving a problem and finding a pathway to do that. 

00;16;59;26 – 00;17;37;07 Dean Gray  

And I think we saw that yesterday, you know, but in some eyes lit up, I think with the understanding that all four of those areas need to be covered. What one thing that struck me from the workshop, too, was the importance of progress, not perfection and the supportive atmosphere to where everybody can go ahead and, you know, produce ideas, put them out there, but then use collective knowledge to raise IQ. 

I think you said that yesterday as well, and I’d like you to speak a little bit about that because I  thought that was pretty powerful yesterday. 

00;17;37;18 – 00;19;10;03 Curt Carlson  

Well, so if you look at an organization like MRI, you have brilliant people individually, they can do significant things, but together you can form teams whose collective IQ is at the genius level. So the trick is how do we put those teams together and then have them collaborate so effectively they can solve the world’s big, important problems? So what Ian was setting up yesterday was a discussion about how do we become more efficient and effective at doing that, identifying those problems and creating the solutions that Ian just mentioned. 

And that’s a discipline. It’s not. We’re telling people what to work on. We’re just saying there are certain fundamental things. If we do them, we’ll get the answers faster and more efficiently. So we approach this from different points of view. We mentioned one, let’s figure out what an important problem is so we understand collectively what we’re going after. 

Let’s have shared language so we can talk to each other more efficiently. We just defined with a value proposition. That’s a perfect example of that. And the third thing is how do we get together and collaborate? And you just mentioned the really important part. The collaboration process has to be positive, supportive, enthusiastic. It’s not a shark tank actually getting together and helping each other learn and improve faster than competition. 

Basically, if we can do those three things, there’s power from that because then you’re tapping  into the full genius of the company. 

00;19;10;09 – 00;19;22;09 Dean Gray  

Yeah. So the importance of not just the champions of innovation, but the entire team of innovation and being able to bring an entire organization behind as a as a champion for innovation.

00;19;22;12 – 00;19;48;21 Curt Carlson  

Yeah, that’s the goal is eventually once you put the team together, everybody is a champion for that part, right? You folks are management champions for the company and for the process. That’s a big part of that. When I people said, what’s your job in this? Right. I said, I’m the champion of a value creation process, but everybody should be a champion for their part of the project. 

And know what that means. The kind of commitment, the kind of skills that it takes to be able to say that. 

00;19;49;28 – 00;19;58;20 Dean Gray  

Ian, what struck you yesterday as being a really just a great step in the right direction. And what do you see as some follow on steps that you’d like for us to take? 

00;19;59;12 – 00;20;57;11 Ian M. Colrain  

I was really impressed at how people embraced the opportunity and embraced the process and worked. You know, by the time we got to do the drills, people have been there for a long day already. We start at 8:00 in the morning. We’d had a very detailed session in the morning, energy levels weren’t flagging, people were positive, people were enthusiastic. 

And it sort of goes back to when one of the first things I did when I came in was ask to see the most recent staff surveys and the desire to be part of an organization that’s innovative and embraces innovation is is really obvious within the staff and the, you know, the first opportunity we give them to to learn how to do that. 

They’re all over it. So that was yeah, you know, really, really very exciting to me. 00;20;57;19 – 00;21;09;22 – Curt Carlson  

I agree. It was one of the most engaged groups I going to workshop with. They were on board from the beginning until we exhausted it there. I was certainly exhausted, but I think everybody else was to. 

00;21;10;12 – 00;21;23;11 Ian M. Colrain  

Think it was incredible. I was wondering if, I could ask the question because it’s something that  comes up a lot. And how would you describe the difference between innovation and invention? 

00;21;23;12 – 00;22;50;18 Curt Carlson  

Invention? Well, invention is obviously very fundamental to what we do. We use the example yesterday of mousetraps. There are four thousand mousetraps. So how many of them were used? What turns out maybe a dozen. So most of them people don’t want they’re clever, they’re smart, they get a patent, but they don’t have an impact on anybody because they’re not solving a problem for somebody else. 

Innovation is when you solve a problem that has a positive impact on somebody else, and that usually means it also has a sustainability model. So invention, yes, it’s new. You got a patent, 

but it’s not having an impact on society until you actually help somebody in some way. So the goal at MRI not just to solve problems. 

It’s to solve problems that have meaning for others. And that’s really the distinction, not  problems, problems that have meaning for others. That’s basically the definition value creation,  and that’s the responsibility of every professional. Every professional has is serving the needs  of somebody else. And every graduate that comes out of a good STEM school obviously can  solve problems, but very few know how to solve problems, have meaning for others. 

And so what you’re doing at MRI is you’re adding that discipline to the skill set of your people.  And that’s a really, really powerful additional skill to give people. 

00;22;52;02 – 00;23;53;03 Dean Gray  

You know, I’ve heard, yeah, the skill part so I’ve heard previously people talk about things like  business development or, sales or even innovation as something you’re or even being a decent  presenter is something you’re born with or you’re not. And that’s not the case, you know, and I  think what was introduced is that is why staff were so excited and why they’re going to  continue to be excited about this is that it is something that can be taught, learned, built, and  then it just embraced across the organization where everybody gets better together. 

With that, though, comes some organizational change right. And I think that that’s part of within your book as well, is this this need for organizational alignment as part of that and change management change leadership can end up having its own challenges there in your career when when you were starting to roll this out earlier at SRI International, for instance, what what were some of the challenges that you ended up facing that, you know, you might be able to help us through before they happen? 

00;23;53;25 – 00;25;30;12 Curt Carlson  

Well, SRI was not MRI. SRI I was in big trouble when I took over and failing for 20 years it was  basically bankrupt. They were selling off the land, the buildings were falling down, and everybody basically had grudges against other people because that’s what happens when you’re in a world of scarcity. So the big the big issue was how do we get out of that into a more positive world? 

And Ian already mentioned one of the most critical things, which is start focusing on things that really matter to people because that’s what engages people and gets them to do the right things. But it starts step by step. We found early adopters, people who wanted to work this new way, and they began to prove that the other staff that this really did work and eventually everybody at SRI knew at least the fundamentals of what is a value proposition. 

I just one more point about why that’s so powerful that that one idea the need approach benefits because competition if an entire organization just knows that much what it means is that everybody, whatever their role is, understands that everything they do is a need. They’re doing it for a reason, whether it’s somebody inside or somebody outside. That one change is by itself transformative. 

And I think that’s what we ended up doing in survey. There were a few people like Ian, there were probably 20 people like Ian who understood all of this. But everybody, all 2500 people understood that much. And that completely changes the dialog inside the company. 

00;25;30;18 – 00;25;44;05 Dean Gray 

Mm hmm. Did you have any resistance? I mean, when you think back there, is there was there any resistance to this kind of a change with adopting this more innovation, disciplined innovation mindset across an organization? 

00;25;44;05 – 00;28;14;08 Ian M. Colrain  

Well, I had the advantage of coming in after. Curt had really transformed the place. So by the time I joined SRI international, it was no longer bankrupt. And we were growing and so on. So but yeah, when new people would come in, it sometimes was a little challenging to get them to buy into it. And then when they start having success in proposing work to the government, where up until that point they had been failing, that, you know, that starts to attract attention. 

And I don’t I think we can’t gloss over how this is in developing a proposal. Many organizations have this embedded in their evaluation criteria. So DARPA’s Heilmeier questions you can break those down into you know, the four categories of NA and BC. And as Curt said yesterday, it doesn’t really matter what you call them. It’s the concepts that are that are clear. 

The advantage of of calling out the NA/BC is having that common lexicon though within an organization. But once you start starting your proposal with what’s, you know, a deep understanding of what the customers need really is. And one of the things that was hardest to learn me was that the customer defines the customer need. So you have to have extremely good business intelligence. 

You have to understand what the problem is that they’re trying to solve. Once you then can tell them, Well, this is the need, this is your pain point, this is how we’re going to then solve your problem. This is why this approach is really going to be beneficial to you. And and this is why it’s better than these other alternatives. 

When someone’s reading that, evaluating proposal, it makes it very easy for them to get to yes.  Versus a competitor’s proposal, which is to say this is what we’re going to do. So, you know, again, success breeds success. And when people start winning proposals, then they get on board fairly quickly. 

00;28;14;08 – 00;29;13;12 Curt Carlson  

Then you mentioned the really important point I think we shouldn’t go past, which is that you change the culture of the place if you think about it in organizational culture and how people collaborate, you do that by changing the behavior of what they do. So the way we run the program, people stand up and they present their work and they use these simple frameworks with an emphasis on these few fundamental questions from the beginning, and they do it over and over and over again. 

So It takes a while for them to see the result of doing that. So as Ian said, it took a while obviously, but then people started being successful and then then it kind of starts to roll up and engages other people. You change culture by changing behavior and and takes time. So it’s not instant. It’s not going to be instant. 

At MRI, I wasn’t instant at SRI. But if you do this, it makes it really does make a profound  difference. 

00;29;15;04 – 00;29;39;17 Dean Gray 

So it’s been it’s been about 15 years, I guess, since the publication of the book. And when you  you look back on the content of the book now, do you do you feel like there are a couple of parts that are absolutely 100% true today, as they were 15 years ago? And then some other things that you when you look at a year we had this this is the part that I would end up modifying if I were going to if I were going to do a revised version. 

00;29;40;28 – 00;32;25;20 Curt Carlson  

Well, I think I think the fundamental principles we came up with, they’re basically the sections on and including team formation and things like that. For example, just one simple example of that. Our good team is one where they all share the vision. They have unique complementary skills and they all share in the rewards if you can do that. 

So you don’t want people with over up with skills that you can work with each other. So you put three people on who do exactly the same thing. It’s probably not going to be a good team. You want to have the minimal team where they share the vision and they share the rewards. And each person has a unique, powerful role in the project. 

So this is things like that in the book. Those things are absolutely true. NA/BC is still absolutely true. The way we run the the meetings, we call them value creation firms. We bring people together, they get very short presentations, maybe 5 minutes, and they get feedback from their colleagues. That’s absolutely true. The feedback from the carriers comes from different points of view. 

What’s good? Don’t forget it. What could be improved or positive or negatives? In the eyes of the end user, the customer and eyes of the investor. So you’re getting this reframing, which was addressed as a piece of what Ian just mentioned about how do you understand this need thing? And we’d often bring in outside experts to help us do that. So getting all those different perspectives, so we had a way to efficiently do that so. 

All those things are completely I think the thing that’s changed in my mind is I didn’t know why it worked so well. And since I left SRI I’ve been studying the science of learning. It’s called active learning, complex analysis. How do you break things down into the fundamentals and things like behavioral science? And it has given us a different twist. 

So yesterday Ian saw, I think, one new technique we call it the five lots that we’ve added, which is another reframing rate to help. Again, look at the problem from a different point of view. So so the next book I’m working on basically will be very similar to this one. It will be, it will also include a family of additional ways to reframe the problem, reframing turns out to be a really important thing. 

Um one of the one of the big behavioral science results is that people always jump from a problem to a solution and it’s almost always wrong. So they fall in love with their idea. And then they, if they don’t understand the need, as it was saying, you can’t solve the real problem. So from the techniques we use, basically how people look at the problem from a different point of view, not to make that mistake. 

So those are the things that we those that are new. 

00;32;25;28 – 00;33;02;00 Dean Gray  

Yeah, I love it. Yeah. That was that was a great exercise. Yesterday, the Ian, you and Curt, as you mentioned in the very beginning, you’ve worked together a long time and you know, seeing you two together and how you interact and your friendship, your colleagues over many years is really it’s it’s something that is, I think, greatly appreciated. 

And a very warm connection. I think that that shows the rest of the staff as well. Is there any question that you would like to ask Curt, while we have him here about the book or anything else before we end up concluding? 

00;33;03;14 – 00;33;07;11 Curt Carlson  

I’ll ask Ian a question. When we were at SRI together (…) 

00;33;07;23 – 00;33;11;14 Ian M. Colrain  

Not I don’t have a question that would be fair to ask. Okay. 

00;33;11;14 – 00;33;11;24 Dean Gray  

All right. 

00;33;12;17 – 00;33;46;13 Curt Carlson  

So Ian. You know, so we were going through this journey together in SRI, it’s true, you came in a little bit after the, the most rough part of the initiative where there was so much skepticism and everyone’s been failing for 20 years of a lot of skepticism. Anything that comes in, it’s new. What after experiencing that, what would you change? 

What would you do better about the experience? You had this right now that you’re in this role, I was. Fortunately at a much stronger organization. That’s the good news. But what would you do differently than we did together at SRI? 

00;33;47;10 – 00;36;04;26 Ian M. Colrain  

So the context that I’m in now is is I think helps me answer that question. So SRI, you know, I’m in awe of people who were able to successfully run that organization because it’s almost an unrunable organization it’s incredibly diverse, many different business sectors that are being addressed, many different business models, everything from education research to public policy to health to systems engineering. 

The advantage that I’ve got an MRIGlobal is that it’s a much more focused organization and it has many of the advantages of SRI International in terms of the talent base, the mission focus, but, but I don’t have to worry about so many different things. So I think the, the I’m hoping we can replicate the success that SRI International has had build on the success that MRIGlobal  

has been having over the last several years, grow but grow by being relevant and grow because will become recognized as the gold standard, the best in class in the work that we do. 

And I guess the lesson from Israel is to not just grow for the sake of growth, not just add other things on. And it happened organically over a, you know, 75 years at SRI didn’t it wasn’t a conscious decision. Let’s add a bunch of different stuff but but to try and maintain the focus that we’ve got on bio and chem defense in all its varieties, maybe grow into different market sectors, do more agricultural work, which we used to do, but, but not get distracted by adding things that will dilute the organization, make it more complex. 

00;36;04;26 – 00;37;09;22 Curt Carlson 

I think that’s that’s a brilliant answer. Yeah. And I’m right. MRI is still a complicated organization by normal standards, because there is in this. But actually, it brings up a point about what I’ve learned. I didn’t know actually we were doing this, but in a complex organization, the fundamental principles you used to run, the place have to be a small number and really effective. 

And that’s what this conversation has been about. The focus on the customer simple frameworks, simple mechanisms for getting people together is not this is not quantum mechanics, but they’re fundamental to innovation and what you need to do to bring together have them be successful. So if you get those few fundamental things right, you can make lots of mistakes at the border, but you’re still going in the right direction. 

And I think that’s what Ian is bringing here with the advantages that he has here and certainly  at SRI. So I think that’s a really important point. 

00;37;10;04 – 00;37;10;27 Dean Gray  

I think that’s great. 

00;37;11;10 – 00;37;50;26 Ian M. Colrain  

One of the most important things I learned and partly it was SRI being SRI, partly SRI being embedded in the broader Silicon Valley culture is to not be afraid of failure. You know, that it’s okay to fail. And sometimes it’s good to fail because once you work where that landmine is that you just tread on, you’re not going to tread on it again. 

And the other thing that was was very clear is that complicated decisions often made quite quickly. And because it was more important to keep moving forward than to to stop and make sure you have the exact right answer. 

00;37;50;27 – 00;37;51;08 Curt Carlson  


00;37;52;06 – 00;37;57;27 Ian M. Colrain  

And that’s one of the things that I’ve been trying to do in the last three months and will hopefully continue to do as we move forward. 

00;37;58;03 – 00;38;54;18 Curt Carlson  

You know, if you’re going in the right direction, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s okay. What you have to make sure is you’re going in the right direction. Right. And so we’re back to important problems again as opposed to interesting and or important problems. Don’t go away. You can make mistakes and you can recover. And to build on that, too. 

And being an environment where when people are giving feedback to each other, it remains positive and supportive. So you’re not being beaten up because something didn’t work, because we know things aren’t going to work. I mean, that’s part of the deal is we’re, we’re making stuff up, right? So yeah, but I think the point of are we going in the right direction?

You’re focused point is really fundamental to this. So we’re going in the right way and we supporting people and we have a small number of fundamental principles focused on the customer and the answers we need to have to be successful. If you’re doing those things, I think the probability of success is very, very high. 

00;38;54;23 – 00;39;12;06 Dean Gray  

Yeah, well said. And I think that’s a perfect spot to end the interview, you know, I mean, it can’t say it any better for certain. It’s this has been a real joy to be able to talk with you. Have you here on Gray Matter in and Curt thanks very much for the conversation today and thank you for joining us. 

00;39;12;06 – 00;39;34;19 Curt Carlson  

And Dean, I must say one more thing, because I want to I want to say you can splice this in if you want. I the reason I now teach at universities and other places around the world is I really believe that mastering these skills is life transforming. When people master these skills, they can work as long as they want to. 

They can make an impact and it provides real meaning to their life. So I think MRI is really fortunate to have Ian here who brings that sensibility and that conviction to giving the staff of MRI those skills. I think that’s a real blessing from the organization. 

00;39;51;26 – 00;40;03;21 Dean Gray  

Very good. All right, Curt, Ian, thank you very much. Joining us today on Gray Matter. I really  enjoyed the conversation. Everyone, thank you for joining us and we will see you next time. 

00;40;03;21 – 00;40;16;01 OUTRO: Dean Gray  

Thanks for joining us on Gray Matter. I’m Dean Gray and you can find me at Dean Gray on LinkedIn. Or to learn more about our work, visit MRIGlobal.org