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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