Project Success, Leadership, Innovation Lift-Off and other Best Practices from the World of Science: An Interview with Dr. Colin Carlile

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Dr. Colin Carlile

“Dr. Colin Carlile is a physicist and researcher who moved to Lund, Sweden in 2006 to head up the Swedish bid to host the 2B€ science research infrastructure, the European Spallation Source (ESS).  Initially heading a 4 person effort at the University of Lund, he became the founding Director General of the ESS and led the way to convert it into a 300 person operation and one of the largest science and technology infrastructure projects being built today. The ESS is currently coming to the end of a ten-year construction phase. In recognition of his achievements in 2013 he was awarded the Royal Swedish Order of the Polar Star. Previously, he was the Director of the International Research Centre, the Institut Laue Langevin, located in the city of Grenoble, France.  After 8 years qualifying at UK universities, he spent a year as a post-doctoral fellow in Italy, which shaped his affection for the cultural diversity that an international scientific life offers and the whole of his professional life has been spent in research institutes. He is pleased to now contribute to a very different international organisation, the Global Best Practice Group, as a Special Advisor”

In this second GBPG interview, GBPG’s Group Chairman Malcolm De Silva interviews former European Spallation Source General Director Colin Carlile on the management strategies that led  to his successful leadership of  highly complex innovative projects and what key lessons the development world can learn from science.  Malcolm is a global international development expert. He has over 25 years of experience in legal, contracting and procurement advising governments, international organizations and development entities in development innovation, reform and optimization.  Uniquely he has held staff posts with the European Space Agency, the European Spallation Source,  Mercy Corps, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Southern Observatory and the Asian Development Bank. He is the founder of Global Best Practice Group, where his consultancy portfolio includes national governments, international organizations, multilateral banks, iNGOs and bilateral bodies, with a particular focus on increasing performance and transparency through regulatory and internal business process reform,  operational & policy development, strategic use of  E-procurement and relevant capacity building. He considers Colin to be one of the best leaders he has encountered in his career and a role model in how to manage an organization for success. 

GBPG: The Global Best Practice Group has the honour to welcome Dr Colin Carlile to this second GBPG interview.  Colin, we would like to get your candid thoughts on global best practices affecting the globe, international organisations, NGOs and the corporate world. We also would like to gain an insight into the very real operational experiences you have had over your illustrious career.  Not only have you been the Director General of the European Spallation Source, a global Blue Riband international scientific research organisation, which will generate neutrons for materials research, you have also been the Director of the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL) international research centre in Grenoble. Furthermore, you were awarded the Royal Swedish Order of the Polar Star by the King of Sweden in 2012, an award that dates back to 1748.

I would like to highlight two illustrious people that have also been awarded the Polar Star. One by the name of Henri Poincaré, famous for the Poincaré conjecture. But even more importantly, you are accompanied by Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever. In doing some research on your background as a successful scientist at the global level, merging science with key principles of management, I have to say that you are an adventurer who has initiated the building of a massive scientific project on a green field site, taking science with neutrons to another level at the Europeans Spallation Source.

Colin Carlile: Well Malcolm, let me just say thank you for your welcome. I vaguely recognise myself in what you have just described. I’ve had a long career and I’ve enjoyed it. I began around 50 years ago without really knowing where I was going.  I just followed my nose, and one thing led to another, to the extent that here I am now in Lund in southern Sweden having spent seven years at the European Spallation Source. More recently, 9 years ago when I retired I became a student (once again!), this time round in astronomy. Without the drive demanded by the ESS I decided, well, I need something to exercise my brain, which by the way is the most important best practice, referring to GBPG, so I embarked upon a Master course in Astrophysics here in Lund. It was quite a shock to get used to studying again, taking exams and learning new methods, but I stuck in and after 8 years I succeeded. It was very satisfying.

So, thanks for inviting me to this interview. I am really pleased to be associated with the Global Best Practice Group. I think you’ve got great goals and energy and drive, and I think that you will succeed in a world which needs an injection of equality in my view, making sure that the human beings on this planet have got an equal chance. That’s very idealistic of course, but I am convinced that that is what we should be aiming for with GBPG, and so I strongly support what you are doing.

GBPG: So maybe you can start by providing some background about how you managed to create the ESS. What are your feelings and special thoughts about those times, was it an exciting time?

Colin Carlile: It was certainly an exciting time! You were part of it Malcolm. I had been Director of the ILL in Grenoble, which has been the world’s leading neutron sources for four decades and still is and will remain that way for some years. I was keen to get the essential investment needed for ILL to maintain that position, so I decided to target a number of different countries to try to attract them as new member states. Sweden was one of them. We had a couple of Roadshows to which Sweden and other countries turned up. More partners would enable us to invest in enhancing our scientific facilities. These Roadshows were quite a success. Following this event Sweden sent a delegation to the ILL. Fact-finding! I met there for the first time Allan Larsson, a well-respected former Finance Minister of Sweden. He was an unusual guy, especially for a politician! He was someone who asked questions and expected answers. Politicians normally just want to fill the room with their own ego. But Allan wasn’t like that. He had his list of questions and I thought to myself: this is rather unusual. The visit lasted a day and a half and we eventually succeeded in getting Sweden as a partner. But it became clear that becoming a scientific member of ILL was not their only goal. They were contemplating a bid for the siting of ESS! As they were leaving, I told Allan that my contract would end in 18 months so, if they needed any help, to let me know.

The ESS is a €2 billion scientific infrastructure project; it is small science but with big instruments. In other words, it covers a wide range of disciplines: chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, proton and protein dynamics and much. Many, many different areas of science. There have to be these very big and, let’s be frank, very impressive facilities that will deliver the neutrons to investigate the materials so necessary for energy sustainably, human health, manufacturing industry… ESS is however a long term project; it’s not the kind of project that lasts for two years and then you move on. Basically, if you’re going to be involved with big research facilities you’ve got to look upon it as a lifetime activity. I often liken such endeavours, rather pompously perhaps, to building cathedrals.

You get a great buzz from working in an international environment and making things happen. Some of the lessons that I learned is that engagement at all levels is important. Not important, essential. What I realised from the two main countries that desperately wanted to build ESS, Germany and the UK – I was part of the UK design team in the 1990s – is that they did not want to even approach a decision to choose a site. It might sound ridiculous, but they were very timid, and it resulted in stasis.  Perspective drawings of the facility had to include trees, but not trees that were too German-looking or too British-looking! Such timidity is something that can destroy a  project and as far as ESS was concerned it almost did. When an outline design is on the table you cannot be stand-offish, waiting for the other to make a move. You have to compete and may the best team win. I thought people are never going to build this damned thing because they are too frightened of losing. But I had other fish to fry and by the end of the 1990s I went to ILL in Grenoble. A full-time job if ever there was one! ESS was put to the back of my mind. However, six years later when the Swedish delegation came to ILL it was time to act. I thought, right, we’re going to show these people. We’re going to get this done. In Sweden! So some months later I found myself with a letter from the Rektor of Lund University saying that I had been appointed to head up the Scandinavian bid for ESS.

GBPG: So, you are saying a lot depends on individuals as much as the actual project, its concept or its cost?

Colin Carlile: Yes. Once you have reached a certain level of credibility in terms of the feasibility of constructing a research infrastructure and the scientific case is good, it all becomes about the people involved.

GBPG: Do you find it difficult to brief politicians and civil servants on scientific matters?

Colin Carlile: It depends. Some of them have a background in science but most do not. They will ask questions relating to the facility itself and the return that it will give in terms of scientific advancement, engagement with industry and economic return. Two questions come up almost every time: “How many Nobel prizes will you win?” and “Will you cure cancer?” You know that you are on thin ice here. To yourself you say, it’s not like going down to the garage and saying you want to buy a car. It’s not cause and effect in that way. Winning Nobel Prizes is a completely different thing, but nevertheless they always asked these questions and you had to answer them courteously and as truthfully as possible. So therefore, you have to be skilled in explaining that the experiments that will be done will help to progress towards these ends. Your results will enhance the ability of medics to develop new methods of treatment to improve their ability to cure cancer. You learn that politicians want to be given a black and white answers. They like to be reassured that the very large investment in large research infrastructures will generate spectacular headlines. So, you have got to be very careful, as a trained scientist, not to find yourself saying things which are complete nonsense, and you have to be able to manage expectations. I mean, basically science is putting a brick on top of a brick. It’s like building a wall, you build the foundations and you put brick upon brick so that your edifice is secure. You build it up slowly and deliberately, checking as you go and rejecting what does not fit, and that can be both frustrating and very tricky.

But to get back to where we were, I had decided to throw my hat in with Sweden, and we rapidly developed the belief that we were going to win this battle. There is no way that anyone is going to beat us, and that became our mantra!

GBPG: When you arrived at the University of Lund, starting off with 2 or 3 part-time people but rapidly building up to a team of 20 preparing the ESS bid, at what point did you know you had a good chance? How did you keep your faith and how did you instil that in your team? It’s a hard thing to take 20 people with you.

Colin Carlile: Well for me, it was very clear that the ESS project needed some push – an injection of urgency and momentum. It would be called disruption in today’s jargon. You can’t allow a project to drift into some kind of comfortable equilibrium and hope that you will suddenly get to the point where you’ll be able to build such a facility. So, I told myself that I will do my damnedest. We’re going to get this built in Sweden and confound the others, and that is what happened. We did it! But it was a fight, believe me. Allan Larsson, myself and many others. We did our damnedest and the idea that we were convinced that no one would beat us ran through the whole organisation. As you said, building it up to bring in the best people and to whom we couldn’t offer any permanent jobs. We were all in some ways odd balls, but forming a team was such a pleasurable and satisfying experience. You formed a team not of Nobel Prize winners, but of people who were determined and diverse. People who said we’re going to win this against all the odds.

There are so many experiences that I’m remembering as we speak. Throughout the organisation there was a palpable team spirit, which no one could break. It was like being a football manager. Key people in key positions. We didn’t just want anybody. So we told the University, we’re not taking the people that you no longer want although they really pressed us. We’re taking people with energy and drive, who want to succeed. We are taking people who will be happy to take a risk in their careers. My line was: come and join us and we will succeed. We really created a vibrant team spirit.

GBPG: You had some very creative PR activities!

Colin Carlile: Well, in particular, we had to get industry onboard. Industry was not willing to even write letters of support, because we were seen as some kind of cowboy outfit and our branding was unknown. We tried to get letters of support. They were very, very wary. I’ve had this before many times. Industry just wants to stand back, waiting and watching. They are afraid that their brand might get damaged, it seems to me. I really feel that this is extremely short-sighted. Even in a progressive and innovative country like Sweden industry will not, at least publicly, nail their flag to the mast.

When large scientific projects place contracts, they demand standards from industry that are on the edge of their capabilities. When you are building something that has never been built before, precision or quality requirements can stretch well beyond current standards. We were demanding from industry standards that they had not reached before. When you’re putting satellites up or you are trying to get to Mars or building a large neutron source like ESS, you’re pushing technology to the limit and you’re demanding of industry qualities that up until then they have not needed to achieve and so are not capable of. What it means is that the ability of specific industries to innovate begins to grow so that when another project emerges, they are ahead of the competition. Many companies might not make a penny from our most demanding contracts, but they benefit later as leaders in their field when other commercial opportunities arise. Not only that but their employees are required to produce output of a higher standard, and that also benefits the company by training their workforce

We decided that we had to engage positively with industry. We had to tempt them. We held an industry day in Copenhagen at what they call the Black Diamond, an impressive location. We attracted 600 industrialists to this event. Our goal was to develop a long-term relationship and create an information base so that industrialists would know what was happening. This was only partially successful and, I suppose, the most positive outcome was the publicity that we generated.

But how do you measure the impact of these initiatives? Well at some point you’ve got to rely on your intuition. That if you update, and enthuse, 600 industrialists the information will spread out. You can’t send out a survey to 600 people and expect them to summarise their thoughts and reactions, to create an index and to measure everything quantitatively. But many scientific leaders fall into that trap thinking that they will please their political masters whilst knowing full well that any such exercise is futile. Another way of assessing success however is using intuition to tease out information that is not necessarily able to be written down. A lot of people are suspicious of intuition, but it is simply the sum total of all signals that you have gathered as you observe what’s unfolding around you. I must admit that I’ve relied on my intuition a lot. But many people are horrified by the idea of intuition in science. Horrified! But with a project like this you cannot have total control as some people demand of you. “Measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not” as Galileo said.

GBPG: What was the key factor to get ESS over the line?

Colin Carlile: It’s really difficult to give a single factor. If anything, it was sheer bloody-mindedness. The “No one is going to beat us!” mantra.

GBPG: What was the greatest hurdle you faced in your career and how did you solve it?

Colin Carlile: The greatest hurdle? Perhaps it’s not really a hurdle, but it was the risk of coasting. You saw it all around you. Worthy people who were coasting. I had got to a certain point in my career where I was quite comfortable running a team of 60 people. I could have stayed where I was and had a comfortable life, but an opportunity arose, and I wasn’t sure whether it was for me. What pushed me over the line was the provocative attitude of my then boss. “I dare you”, his supercilious attitude said. So, I went for it and decided to seek new challenges at the age of fifty. It was the best decision I ever made! That stopped the coasting good and proper, the comfort factor was gone, and that was exactly the right thing to do, for me, my wife and my family. Was it a hurdle? Yes, but not in an obvious way.

GBPG: What is more important, loyalty or intellect? In your opinion, what’s the most important factor in building a team?

Colin Carlile: Well, of course you need a certain level of credibility, a certain minimum level of intellect, knowledge, training, etc. But once you get beyond that point, and that’s not necessarily so high – it’s not Nobel Prize levels of intellect – you’re off. It’s the ability to deal with complex problems and to find your way through. It’s then that the loyalty, the determination, the bloody-mindedness kicks in. The loyalty to the project, the loyalty of everyone working on the project becomes the important thing and the determination to succeed. But as a leader you have to earn that loyalty. So you definitely have to have intellect as a baseline requirement. But let’s say you want to win the Champions League. It’s no good having eleven goalkeepers, you’ve got to have people with different skills. People who can run fast, people who are rather hefty and can stop attackers getting through. People who can see the strategy of the whole game and define directions. Of course, you have one or two goalkeepers, you have two or three strikers and fast wingers, but you have to have a mix, and everybody in the team has got to say, this is my life, I am an integral part of it all, and we are going to succeed. That’s the team spirit in action.

GBPG: Do you still see team building and coming into an office as important in these days of remote working?

Colin Carlile: Yes, absolutely, 100%. The idea that you can sit in an apartment or a house that was never built to be an office and you might have your partner also looking for a corner where they can work, and maybe you have children at school doing the same thing! Homes are not built for that. You can do it for a while, but what you lose is the spark that you get from interacting with people, seeing people eye to eye and coming up with ideas. When you meet people in the street, in a restaurant, on a train for example, you can very rapidly find some kind of overlap, with most people, make some kind of contact with them if they are receptive. That’s great fun. But when you’re working through a computer screen, you miss that particular kind of experience, you don’t interact with people in the same way. You can keep the wheels turning for a while but you can’t create and maintain a culture that way.

Which brings me to my next point:  you manage teams by knowing them not by sitting in your office and sending out emails. This comes back to the dead hand of “total control” that micromanagers obsess over. You have to go around and talk to people. What this does is to create bonds between people. So, you manage people, and the project, by walking around. You gather so much information that way, it’s quite astonishing. My father, who was a farmer’s son, used to say the best manure is taken round on the farmer’s boots. He was an old-style policeman who knew everyone and knew where trouble was brewing. In other words, you walk around the farm, you find a fence that needs mending, a sheep that is lame. You don’t just sit in your farmhouse and wait until the trouble comes to you. You go around and you see what’s happening and you see what’s not working. You make the same kind of links with people on a big project, and for me that’s the way to do it. Are they feeling well? Are they down? And why? But you also laugh and joke. It becomes infectious. It’s not for everyone of course and it’s not for every organisation. A lot of people find it completely terrifying, but it works for me.

GBPG: On that, building a link with people, what type of team building exercises did you find most profitable? Was it with a flip chart? With an expert? Was it a walk in the woods? Was it time in the pub? What did you find the most effective for team bonding?

Colin Carlile: Well in Sweden a lot of bonding is done by kickoffs, awaydays, afterworks. and things like this. That’s really helpful, and there’s no doubt it’s very effective. You see people out of context, and you interact in different groups. These are good ways of creating team spirit, but in the end it gets down to interpersonal relationships. Lowering the barriers, creating trust and encouraging high performance.

Training is important. It has two different aspects: One is the ability to do your work and to do it better. To expand your knowledge and to get the idea that, if I can master a new method of working, I can see my career going forward. The other aspect is training to reinforce the culture of the organisation. That is when you play football, or you got out for a drink. You treat people well, for example you throw a party. As an aside, however, you have to be aware that there are training junkies who see training as an end in itself. Let’s put that to one side. I have often found that delegates on governance bodies frown at you for doing this. However, what they ignore is that we are creating the motivation and momentum to deliver the project. It’s really important that you do that, so people feel valued, they feel included. People have to feel valued and have to feel that they can come and talk to you. But beware! If you’re running an organisation you have got to put in many, many more hours than you might imagine. You’re basically in top gear all the time. You can’t create that with sort of thing with remote working.

GBPG: I remember it instilled a unique sense of camaraderie, all your events and bonding activities. I’ve never seen an atmosphere of being in something together, such as what was instilled in the team when you started the ESS.

Colin Carlile: That was the culture that we had and, you know, cultures change during the lifetime of a project. The necessary team culture can and does change, but it changes slowly. You have a number of phases in a big project. The fight to get the site decision, the building of the team to achieve that, and then the construction phase bringing in different kinds of people to bolster the original team, and that gradually changes the culture. The goal of course is to deliver. But the initial culture sets the tone and the idea that it should be fun to work, it should not be all toil.  Sometimes of course it is toil, but if you don’t have the fun, you’re not willing to countenance the toil. That’s not always appreciated by your governance bodies, and then you find yourself living life on the knife edge. At that point you have to push back at your governance bodies. You have to let them know you won’t accept their controlling compulsion. But it’s great fun, believe me.

GBPG: Are you laissez-faire or are you interventionist in managing people?

Colin Carlile: Up to a point I’m laissez-faire. You have to put a lot of effort into settling people in, ensuring that they know where they are going. You must talk to them and check that it’s going in the direction, exactly where the project needs to go. You let him or her go ahead, find their feet, and if they come up with good ideas, you let them roll. I really think that micromanagement is a killer. You don’t look down on people and you certainly don’t make people feel small. No heavy hand. Nevertheless, some people do manage in that way! The temperament of the person in charge is a very important aspect.

If you see that things are going off the rails, then you’ve got to take action. But you have to try and ensure that it doesn’t go off the rails in the first place, and the way that you do that is to know what is going on. Keep your ear to the ground, inform people, listen to their concerns, value them. You have to be prepared to put in the effort.

I remember when I was a child in the early days of TV. Some guy who had 20 plates spinning on sticks all threatening to fall off. That would get the viewers quite excited because one of the plates was obviously going to fall. He’d theatrically wait till the last moment and rush over and rescue it. Times have changed haven’t they! Quite frankly, managing 500 people is like spinning plates. But that’s what you are doing with a big project. You are making sure the plates don’t fall. 500 people is probably the limit to manage an organisation in this way, by walking around.  But you can do it and you can get to know people and you get a lot out of it, believe me.

 GBPG: What do you see as the key scientific trends in the next decade?

Colin Carlile: So where is science going? Well, there are many people who would like it to go backwards. ”We’ve had enough of experts”! We see that very starkly across the Atlantic with the madness that has occurred there, basically by demeaning experts. But you do need experts, in other words specialists who rely on evidence, and this movement in the US is frightening, the shamelessness of politicians turning around and generating fake news about science. Encouraging a flat-earth mentality!

The creative side, the productive side, is that there are many challenges that we are facing as humankind, they are well known, and we as a society are working in different ways to tackle these challenges. Perhaps not as fast as we would like… But some scientific challenges are not well-known, like for example what’s the origin of consciousness? Where do I come from? Where is memory stored? Are we alone in the Universe? These questions are rather fundamental, I think, in terms of the human psyche. Are we really so different from animals? A lot of people don’t like to admit that other animals are sentient. It is not convenient. So when a person is trying to understand their place on earth these things are all very important. So I can see a diversification of science. Some trends are obvious, some are not.

There is certainly health, ageing and the climate. Clearly there has been human intervention, human action that is causing a change in the climate. It is undeniable in my view. Then the question arises, how do you deal with that? Well, politically it’s very, very difficult. But there are some people that say, well, the way to deal with climate change is geoengineering. No need to change our way of life. Let’s inject reflective material into the stratosphere and reflect away the solar energy. For me this is completely insane because you can hardly control the temperature of your living room, so how are you going to control the temperature of the earth? You mustn’t allow crazy ideas to insinuate, but instead put things back where there were, be firm and practical at the same time.  For example, the best way to reduce carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is by planting trees and reducing emissions, globally. And that gets us back to Global Best Practices. It is a global matter. I think that science will certainly go in these directions. Probing the fundamentals of nature and exploring the uncertainties of mankind

At the same time science is very curiosity driven. What happened before the Big Bang? Are we alone in the universe? For me it’s only a matter of time before we find life on other planets around other stars than our Sun. You have two aspects to this conundrum: Is there life out there, and if so could they be more advanced than we are?  A scary thought! What is perhaps more existential is whether the earth is going to be hit by a large asteroid? It has happened in the past many times! It is almost certain to happen, so what can we do to mitigate that risk? So, in a nutshell, science is about asking questions, finding answers and testing the answers until something stands the test of time.

GBPG: What best practices can we take from science that would benefit other disciplines?

The best practice in science is that you don’t believe anything unless and until it’s been tested. Don’t believe in the use of herbal medicines for example until they have been shown to be effective. Evidence-based. The scientific method is to test your ideas experimentally, allow them to be criticised by others, try and answer the critics until you reach a point where the scientific community is fairly sure you are not wrong, and you can contribute to the building of a common foundation of knowledge. A lot of other so-called “best practices” involve looking over their shoulders at industrialists or politicians far too much. Economics for example relies too much on politics and they need to focus more on facts. Comparatively speaking they are still at the stage of Galileo when he insisted that the earth orbited the Sun and was persecuted for it – by the church! But in science you demand that the facts that you rely upon are actually facts to the best of your knowledge. And this brings us to education. Education is fundamental to the future and to survival as a species. We have to avoid a scenario where people are encouraged to follow the purveyors of falsehoods, the false prophets who are so prominent today, in the manner that children followed the pied piper of Hamelin, without asking any questions. So, the parting message must be to educate the children! But incredible as it might seem some politicians are afraid of that!

GBPG: Thank you Colin.

Colin Carlile: Thank you, Malcolm, I have enjoyed it.


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