Michael Schrage: An interview by Bob Morris

SchrageMichael Schrage is a Research Fellow at the MIT Center for Digital Business and a Visiting Fellow at Imperial College’s Department of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He examines the various roles of models, prototypes, and simulations as collaborative media for innovation risk management. He has served as an advisor on innovation issues and investments to major firms, including Mars, Procter & Gamble, Google, Intel, BT, Siemens, NASDAQ, IBM, and Alcoa. In addition, Michael has advised segments of the national security community on cyberconflict and cybersecurity issues. He has presented workshops on design experimentation and innovation risk for businesses, organizations, and executive education programs worldwide. Along with running summer workshops on future technologies for the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, he has served on the technical advisory committee of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. In collaboration with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Schrage helped launch a series of workshops sponsored by the Department of Defense on federal complex systems procurement. In 2007, he served as a judge for the Industrial Designers Society of America’s global International Design Excellence Awards.

Michael authored the lead chapter on governance in complex systems acquisition in Organizing for a Complex World (CSIS 2009). He has been a contributor to such prestigious publications as the Harvard Business Review, Sloan Management Review, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, strategy+business, IEEE Software, and the Design Management Journal. In his best-selling book, Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate, published by Harvard Business School Press (2000), Schrage explores the culture, economics, and future of prototyping. His next book, Getting Beyond Ideas was published by Wiley (2010). His latest book, The Innovator’s Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More than Good Ideas, was published by MIT Press (2014).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Michael.

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Morris: Before discussing The Innovator’s Hypothesis, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Schrage: Certainly, my parents. But since adolescence and university, I would unhesitatingly say my friends and, of course, my wife. My friends and I take friendship seriously and we don’t indulge each other’s weaknesses even as we respect that no one is or should be without flaws. I like and admire my friends – and my wife – and they all give me superb perspective on what it means to try to be a good person. There’s a wonderful conversation to be had about “satisficing” and “optimizing” in this context but this isn’t the place.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Schrage: These are more awkward than difficult questions because – of course – that’s not the “unit of analysis” I would use. Certainly, my time as a Washington Post journalist/columnist had an enormous impact on me. I was in my early 20s and dealing with extraordinarily powerful, extraordinarily influential, extraordinarily smart and extraordinarily competitive people in a challenging environment. But the same could be said about my fellowship at MIT’s Media Lab back when Nicholas Negroponte was running it. I’ve always – always! – made a serious effort to learn form my professional interactions. Best case, I learned from the very best about what made them “effective” and what make them tick. At worst, I gained greater insight into myself and my limitations. I became much more sensitive to the reality that great intelligence, great influence and great competence did not necessarily correlate with good character – and vice versa.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Schrage: Yes. I was collaborating with my best friend to design and build a really path-breaking new software back in the 1980s. I slept on his couch and we worked together for a fortnight but nothing was coming out of us but frustration and bad arguments. Here we were – two really smart guys who liked and trusted each other and were committed to doing something great – but we were getting nowhere. This made no sense to us and we were both getting depressed.

Rob finally said, “Look, I know a guy – he’s a bit of a nut – but he’s come up with an interesting technology and approach to getting people to work together. We should see him.” I skeptically responded, “What is he? A therapist? We’re going into couples therapy now…?”

But Rob said it wasn’t like that and so we went off to Bernie’s. Long story short: Bernie had hooked up a Mac to a Limelight projector and simply facilitated a design discussion between Rob and myself. As we talked, our conversation was made visible on a large screen. We began talking to each other through the screen; that is, the focus of or attention and communication was the shared space of our screen-based conversation. We began to move the words and phrases and then pictures and graphs. To use Bernie’s phrase, “We could see ourselves being heard….” This meeting directly led to our design document and a real breakthrough in mutual understanding and awareness. I “got” it.

This simple computer-augmented conversation had a huge impact. It was, forgive me, transformative and led directly to my first book about collaboration. I am fascinated, struck, and compelled by how technology can amplify and augment who we are and what we can do not just for ourselves but with each other. This has been central to my academic research and advisory work. I had vaguely appreciated and understood that before the conversation with Bernie but that episode crystalized/galvanized and every other kind of ‘ized’ that into an epiphany.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Schrage: Invaluable is a tricky word. Honestly, only three or four formal classes (and teachers) were truly ‘invaluable’ in my conceptual and/or intellectual development. My classes with Doanld Michie on AI; a couple of “history of economic thought” seminars and workshops. A matrix algebra class.

There are only a handful of formal educational experiences I can or would point to as being integral to my professional development and effectiveness. That said, being in those environments – having opportunities for informal exchanges, projects, mentorship, apprenticeship, etc. – was imperative to success. Bluntly, most formal learning mechanisms didn’t fit with my personality, curiosity and aspirations. Fortunately – or unfortunately – I was clever enough to always do “well.” But doing “well” and learning lots aren’t the same thing. I was genuinely interested not just in learning but in understanding the fundamentals and most of the subjects, courses and teachers I had in formal environments simply were unwilling or unable to provide that.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Michael cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

MIT Faculty page link

The Innovator’s Hypothesis/MIT Press link

Amazon link

Amazon link to Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become?

YouTube videos link

Big Think videos link

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