Do You Have Moonshot Magic?

Buzz Aldrin: Apollo Flag

When you meet a person named Astro Teller, you know you are going to hear something interesting. Teller is the head of what he describes in his TED talk as the “Moonshot Factory.” We know it as X (formerly, Google X), the extraordinary innovation company. The impressive people at X call their goals “moonshots” because they are working on projects as audacious as the original moonshot proposed by President Kennedy. They also believe that they are working in a factory (rather than a lab or incubator) because they want to develop technologies that are both practical and replicable at a reasonable cost.

To achieve their moonshot innovations, the people of X have created a moonshot blueprint, a set of rules that govern their work:

  1. Focus on a huge problem that affects many millions of people.
  2. Propose a radical solution to that problem.
  3. Establish a credible belief that the technology necessary for that radical solution really can be built.

Putting this blueprint into action has resulted in an impressive array of innovations: self-driving cars, Makani energy kites that place portable wind turbines higher up in the stratosphere where the wind is faster and more consistent, and Project Loon (a balloon-powered Internet to provide connectivity to billions of people who live beyond cell tower access).

The moonshot blueprint has also resulted in some pretty spectacular failures. And that, paradoxically, is the secret of the Moonshot Factory’s success.  According to Teller, moonshot work is messy work so they have had to confront that reality:

But rather than avoid the mess, pretend it’s not there, we’ve tried to make that our strength. We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong. That’s it, that’s the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer, ‘Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?’

Obviously, this appetite for hunting down failure takes intestinal fortitude. After all, it’s quite natural for people to prefer the easy, safe path to success. Few want the disappointment or reputational risk that comes from being associated with a failed project. However, X needs its people to smoke out failures as soon as possible. It’s the best way to avoid truly expensive disasters later on.

So they put their money where their mouth is. In his TED talk, this is how Teller describes their winning approach:

We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. Teams kill their ideas as soon as the evidence is on the table because they’re rewarded for it. They get applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from their manager, me in particular. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that ended their projects, from teams as small as two to teams of more than 30.

This is a radical approach to innovation that goes beyond Failure PartiesFailure Reports, Failure Targets, and even Safe-to-Fail experiments. Yet it is the secret to achieving moonshot magic.

What could you and your team accomplish if you developed moonshot magic?

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

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Google Plus and Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo would have hated Google+.  To be honest, she probably would have hated Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and MySpace as well.  However, after spending just a short while on Google+, I can see that it would really have given her hives.

For those of you who actually have been on vacation these last few days or away from a computer enjoying the summer weather, Google+ may not ring a bell. So here’s a quick overview of what it is and how it works:

First via Google’s vaseline-coated soft-focus lens:

Now, here’s a pithier review from CNETTV:

With Google+, you have the ease of Facebook- or Twitter-style sharing with the power of Google behind it.  Google+ gives you lots of opportunities to share content and then have an extended conversation regarding that content.  You can choose to share certain content with some folks but not others via the “Circles” organization scheme and Google+ Settings.  Once you’ve found good content, you can endorse or recommend it using the +1 Button. Further, because there don’t appear to be size restrictions, you won’t have to develop that special Twitter skill of compressing your pearls of wisdom into bursts of 140 characters or less. Best of all, you have the power of Google search to find interesting people (via their Google Profiles) and interesting content. If that isn’t enough, Google gives you the ability to video chat with a number of friends (called “Hangouts“) and have a private conversation with a select group of friends (called “Huddle“).  If there are particular topics that interest you,  try the Google+ “Sparks” function to find other aficionados.  Add to all of this the ability to instantly upload photos and videos, and you may begin to find fewer reasons to go to other social media platforms.

Now, back to Greta Garbo.  The film buffs among my readers will remember that she was notoriously reclusive.  She just wanted to be “let alone.” To someone of her disposition, Google+  would be tremendously troubling.  By providing so many useful functions in a single place, it offers a seemingly efficient means to contribute and consume content about family, friends, acquaintances and…celebrities. All in one place.  It’s powerful and it’s something with which Ms. Garbo never had to contend.

In fairness, Google has done a pretty good job of designing the user interface. As a result, it invites you in and tempts you to do almost too many things in one place. In theory, a dedicated Google+ user would no longer need Twitter, FB, Flickr or Skype, to name a few. That user could simply live in Google+.  And, once Google+ moves out of Beta testing and into the general population, you may discover that enough of your family, friends and acquaintances are on Google+ that you don’t need to go elsewhere to interact with them.

If Google+ provides a reasonable substitute for other social media channels, it could easily become my primary dashboard for online communications. One concern I have is that I liked the simplicity of having specific channels for particular types of communications (e.g., an RSS reader for sharing feeds, Twitter for general news, FB for personal updates, blogs for think pieces, FriendFeed for extended conversations with friendly geeks, etc.). Once everything is consolidated on a single platform, I fear that my social interactions (and this tool) may require a great deal more management on my part.

On top of all of this, it is as if Google is seducing users into bringing all of their social interactions onto a Google platform.  It makes me feel a bit like Little Red Riding Hood facing the Big Bad Wolf.  How on earth do we avoid getting eaten? Now Google knows with even greater clarity what we know, who we know and how we behave. It’s an advertiser’s dream. To be fair, Google has tried to address some of these concerns via its terms of service.  We’re told that Google has been paying attention to the infamous missteps of the FB team when it comes to privacy. Nonetheless, it’s hard to ignore the sheer power and scope of coverage of Google.  In light of that, giving them even more of my life seems to be a step that should not be taken lightly.

Don’t get me wrong.  Google+ is definitely the sandbox to play right now — especially if you are even slightly geeky.  It’s the new toy in town and it’s fun. That said, some folks liked Google Wave and others were enthusiastic about Google Buzz. Check in with me later to see if I’ve succumbed or whether my inner Greta Garbo leads me to walk away.

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How High the Moon?

Les Paul 93rd Birthday Concert I’m not easily impressed, but today Google impressed me.  How?  They put an extraordinary “Google Doodle” on their search page in honor of the June 9 birthday of the legendary guitarist, Les Paul. (See video below.)

One of the great benefits of living in New York City is that we have access to amazing performers.  Nearly everyone who is anyone comes to New York to strut their stuff.  And Les Paul was no exception.  In fact, well into his 90s, he had a regular gig on Monday nights at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York City.  I was fortunate enough to experience the magic. There he would sit with his trio and make the most astonishing music with his iconic electric guitar.  Over the course of the evening, he played many of his greatest hits for a highly appreciative audience — an audience that went wild when he launched into a famously fast rendition of How High the Moon.  Inevitably, a listener was left open-mouthed, wondering how he produced such fantastic sounds from his instrument.

In a similar fashion, even this jaded New Yorker was left open-mouthed when I realized that the Les Paul Google Doodle was interactive.  (See the video below.) By moving my cursor over the strings of the guitar image, I could produce the sound of an electric guitar.  Amazing!

You may be less easily impressed and feel that I ought get out and see the world more often, but that’s really not the point.  The beauty of this playable guitar on a Google search page is that it reminds us that we haven’t yet reached the limits of what’s possible using online media.  In some ways many of us have until now merely moved our old print or telephonic or face-to-face communications to our computers, and we haven’t looked for much more than improved speed and some hyperlinks. Google’s guitar points to a much wider range of possibilities — allowing us to co-create, allowing us to experience new things — all through the computer.

Keep this in mind when you return to the daily grind of your office.  We have tools on our desks that are grossly underutilized.  While we may not have access to Google’s talented designers, I bet there’s a great deal more we could do with our existing computing power if only we thought outside the (music) box.

In honor of the innovative musician, Les Paul, take this Google Doodle to heart and to work tomorrow. Push your systems, your designs and your imagination a little harder, a little further.  Just start by asking the classic Les Paul and Mary Ford question:  How High the Moon?

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This video captures the Les Paul Google Doodle in Action:

Here’s a video of an older Les Paul, playing How High the Moon while doing astonishing things with his guitar (please excuse the quality of the recording):

Here are Mary Ford and Les Paul performing How High the Moon:

[Photo Credit: PiscesBlue81]

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A Google Instant Experiment

Sometimes my curiosity gets the better of me. That happened this morning, when I wondered what Google Instant would do to some typical searches of mine. The results were thought-provoking:

  • When I typed “law” >> Google Instant served up information on Law via Wikipedia and then information on the television show “Law and Order” first.
  • When I typed “law firm” >> the first law firm name Google Instant showed me was the New York firm, Paul Weiss. Kudos to the Paul Weiss marketing department. (I hope the marketing department of every NYC law firm is paying attention to this!)
  • When I typed “law firm kn” >> Google Instant provided a link to an old blog post of mine on Personality and Law Firm Knowledge Management.  The best part (for me) is that this post appears on the first page of results. (Whew!) Better still, Google Instant helpfully provides on that first results page a link to all my blog posts that have been tagged to the topic “law firm knowledge management.”
  • When I chose the “law firm knowledge management” search query provided by Google  >>  Google Instant offered on the first page of search results links to knowledge management materials from Lexis, the American Bar Association, Amazon.com, and … AboveandBeyondKM.com.

Since Google tailors search results to the user, I asked a friend living in a different part of the state to run a parallel search using Old Google.  Here’s what we found:

  • When she typed “law” and clicked search >> Old Google gave her  the Wikipedia Law article, then Law.com, and then FindLaw.com.
  • When she typed “law firm” and clicked search >> Old Google gave her “Philadelphia Law Firm,” then another personal injury lawyer’s web site, then web design for lawyers, and then the Wikipedia Law Firm article.
  • When she typed “law firm kn” and clicked search >> Old Google gave her the Martindale & Hubell link for  “KN Hyde and Associates” — which appears to be a commercial law firm with offices in several parts of the former Yugoslavia — and then gave her a direct link to that firm’s website as her second search result. The third result is to a law firm in Bangalore, India.
  • When she typed “law firm knowledge management” and clicked search >> Old Google offered exactly the same results to her as Google Instant offered to  me — complete with the link to this blog.  Very nice!

What this test with an unscientifically small sample suggests is that Google Instant knows a fair amount about who I am.  (Although it hasn’t figured out that I’m not a Law and Order devotee.)  That said, I was delighted to discover that this blog ranks well in the search results of an interested party like me, as well as in the search results of my friend who does not work in the law firm world and has never searched for my blog via Google.

Out of sheer vanity (or perhaps prudence), I tried a new search — for my name.  I had to type “Mary Abrah” before I turned up in the search results.  But that’s not too bad.  After all, I do have a fairly common name. When I typed “V Mary A” one of my social media activity streams and my blog appeared on the first page.  I had to type “V Mary Abrah” before Google Instant figured out that I was looking for myself.  Interestingly, when I tried these searches again a few minutes later, I got slightly different results.  However, I don’t know what prompted Google to change the results order.

At the end of the day, it appears that keywords still matter.  However, if your keyword or phrase is too long, users may never get to it if they are offered other options by Google Instant.  Accordingly, it may well be time for you to reconsider your keyword strategy.  If your website gets a fair amount of traffic thanks to Google searches, you may want to think harder about the implications of Google Instant.  I know I will be.

[Photo Credit: dullhunk]

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Google Blink Not Google Instant

Google Money (Enterprise Irregulars)

Google unveiled Google Instant on September 8. By most accounts, it’s an impressive step forward in search technology that brings us closer to immediate gratification.

Until now, most of the time related to searching was spent typing a query and then evaluating the answers.  Typically, one would type a query, hit enter, review the results and then click through to see if an item on the results page was responsive.  And then, rinse and repeat until you found what you wanted or gave up trying. With Google Instant, Google offers search results to you before you finish typing your query.  With every character you type, Google attempts to predict your query and serves up search results that it thinks will meet your need. In other words, Google plays a version of Name that Tune with you — trying to identify the song you have in mind using the fewest notes possible.

So how much time will Google Instant save?  Google estimates that a typical search takes approximately 25 seconds.  With Google Instant, you can shave 2-5 seconds off every search.  What does this mean in aggregate terms?  According to Google, “If everyone uses Google Instant globally, we estimate this will save more than 3.5 billion seconds a day. That’s 11 hours saved every second.”

Even still, I couldn’t help thinking “close but no cigar.”  To be honest, while it’s awfully nice that Google can make accurate predictions based on just a few letters in a search box, what I really want is for Google to predict my query and serve up helpful results … before my fingers even touch the keyboard!  This is what I call Google Blink (i.e., getting results in a blink of an eye).  As it turns out, Google’s engineers have already considered this possibility, but called it MentalPlex.  With MentalPlex, all you have to do is stare at the Google MentalPlex page, “project a mental image of what you want to find” and then that action alone will trigger the display of responsive search results.  Now that’s more like it!  Although this may be my fondest wish for search technology, as far as I know, it’s not yet more than an April Fool’s joke for Google.

All joking aside, why should we care about Google Instant or, better still, what I’m calling Google Blink? To quote Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, “Never underestimate the importance of fast…speed matters cuz your time matters.”

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If you’ve got 90 minutes to spare and would like to learn more about Google Instant, here’s the video of the launch announcement:

Alternatively, here’s a quick overview that will take less than two minutes of your time:

Finally, here’s Google Instant served up with a side of Bob Dylan:

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Ahead of its Time

Yesterday’s announcement about the end of Google Wave saddened me. I was one of the lucky ones who had access to the beta site early last fall. To be honest, it was great to be part of the reconnaissance group. A lot of the initial conversation was pretty basic, along the lines of “Does anyone know how…?” or “Guess what I just discovered?” And, for a while, that was fun. But then we seemed to run out of things to say and activity on most of the Waves I had joined petered out. What became clear was once we were past the gee whiz period of learning how to use the new toy, we needed a better reason to use it.

So I began to search for specific projects that could be enhanced by use of Google Wave.  And, not surprisingly, once I turned my focus to this I saw several projects. One of my favorites was proposed by a colleague who wanted to use a Wave to plan her wedding. I made her promise to tell me how it went because I wanted to blog about it.

I don’t fault Google (too much) for shuttering Wave. After all, they have to allocate their own resources and, by their standards, adoption rates had been disappointing. However, I can’t help thinking the decision was a little premature. Nonetheless, it was Google’s decision to make and it fits with the preferred approach of experimenting widely, but being willing to fail fast.

Closer to home, I was telling a friend today about some cool technology I was trying. He told me that he had looked at it at least five years ago, but the users in his organization had not been ready for it.  As a result, he reluctantly canceled his pilot. Five years later, I’m discovering how much easier it is to win adoption. This is largely because of the improvement of the consumer experience on the internet.  Clearly my friend’s pilot was ahead of its time. Can the same be said for Google Wave? Perhaps in a few years the general public will be ready to do something useful with this technology. At that point, we’ll have to hope that Google or open-source developers will brave another attempt at the Wave.

[Photo Credit: Lovati’s Photos]

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Trading Our Privacy

In Rousseau’s social contract, people surrendered part of their autonomy to a central authority in order to gain the benefits of civil society, not least among which were social order and personal security.  In the Internet’s social contract, we seem to have given up our bargaining power.  All too often we surrender our privacy because of laziness and inertia.  Of course, we dress it up by claiming that a loss of privacy is the cost of increased efficiency.  Thanks to the open way we transact much of our social and personal business online, there is very little that can’t be found out about us with minimal effort. Given the ubiquity of Google, much of our lives are discoverable by Google.  Your e-mail?  Google has it.  Your social media exchanges?  Google is indexing those as well.

I don’t mean to pick on Google.  Let’s look at Facebook.  People flock to that platform daily, jump in with both feet, and start recording the minutiae of their lives in this public forum.  How many of them bother to look at, much less do something about, the privacy options Facebook provides? And, what about all those online retailers who know not only what you buy, but what catches your interest as you browse their inventory.

Did we mean for this to happen?  Should we just roll-over and take it or is this something we should fight?

I’ve posted below a video from Google that discusses their alternative to the Internet’s lack of privacy.  Google calls it the Opt-Out Village.  While the video is tongue-on-cheek, it does provide a sobering reminder of how much of our privacy we’ve surrendered.  I suspect Google considers privacy an over-valued relic of the past.  And, based on our recent behavior, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion.  But is that a fair conclusion?  On the other hand, do we deserve privacy when we seem to value it so little?

Google’s Opt-Out Village:

[Hat tip to Neil Richards for passing on the Google video link.)

[Photo Credit:  Mikey G Ottawa]

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