A man named Astro Teller (yes, that IS his real name) works at a place known as ‘X’ (yes, that is ITS real name). It’s almost like he was born for the job.
So, what is this place called ‘X’? It’s a research and development outfit located about a half mile from Google’s headquarters. Basically, it’s a factory of misfits, albeit very SMART misfits, who are paid by Google to solve the world’s problems. Think of it like this, ‘solve for X.’
Their goal every day at work? Shoot for the moon. That’s why they’re also known as ‘The Moonshot Factory.’ That’s an homage to John F. Kennedy. In 1962 at Rice University, JFK told the country about a dream he had. A dream to put a person on the moon by the end of a decade. No one knew if it was possible to do but he made sure a plan was put in place to do it if it WAS possible. He just had a dream to do it. We did it … and with 6 months to spare!
Astro helps the geniuses at ‘X’ adopt this mindset. They dream BIG. They aren’t just dreams; they’re more like visions of the future coupled with strategies for making them real. What are they working on at this ‘Moonshot Factory’? There’s tons of secrecy surrounding the place until they’re ready to launch an idea. There are just things they don’t talk about publicly.
One thing they will discuss, however, is related to the issue of failure.
They start by informing their staff it’s important to keep their visions big and this helps them to keep dreaming. That’s why they use ‘Moonshot.’ They want their people to go ahead and shoot for the moon. They use ‘Factory’ to remind themselves to have concrete plans for making those visions real.
But here’s a secret … the moonshot factory is a messy place. Rather than avoid the mess and pretend it’s not there, they spend the bulk of their time breaking things and trying to prove that they’re wrong. They push hard to find their mistakes. That’s the secret.
They run their hardest right AT the hardest parts of a problem, and they do that first. They actually get excited about determining how they’re going to kill their projects every day.
This philosophy is what is ‘driving’ (pun definitely intended!) Google’s driverless car. But that philosophy also drove Google Glass, which was not a huge success.
There was a ton of press for Google Glass. It was touted to be the next ‘must have’ gadget, but it really fell flat. How did the team working on Glass recover from that? To answer that question, you have to look at the way you and your team view success and failure. And when failure does occur, how do you recover from it and help your team move on? How do you push past it? How do you learn from it?
After looking at the Glass project’s rise and eventual fall, the team determined there were some parts of the process they did that were fantastic and some things they decided not to repeat. That’s it … that’s the secret: learn how to embrace failure. Failure is hard, so how do you get people excited to fail? How do you get a team behind failure?
Step one for Astro? He put the Glass team in front of a room full of their peers at X and said, “This team has done more to further innovation by ending their project than any of you in your seats have done in the last quarter.”
This led to an uncomfortable silence in the room. “And we’re giving them all BONUSES for ending their project!”
The people sitting in their seats were feeling even more like WHAT? He then moved on to, “Hey, guys … take a vacation. And when you get back find some new projects to sink your teeth into.”
By then everyone thought he lost his mind. But now, he doesn’t have to say it anymore because it’s part of the culture at X now.
X is structured with these feedback loops of making mistakes, and learning, and new design. If something’s wrong with their project, they want to know it now. Not halfway through production and millions of dollars later. Discovering a major flaw in a project doesn’t always mean the end to the project; sometimes it gets them onto a more productive path.
It’s how you look at it. You didn’t fail. You just hit a snag that pushed you in a different direction. It’s all about perspective.
They’ve effectively reframed “real failure” as the point at which you know the thing you’re working on is the wrong thing to be working on or you’re working on it in the wrong way. You can’t call the WORK a failure … it’s just learning.
If you expect people to do a hard thing, you need them to own it. If it’s done TO them, it feels like a catastrophe. If they own it, it can actually be empowering.
One of the most ambitious recent X projects is ‘Loon,’ short for balloon. The idea was to make a super small and super cheap satellite, tie it to a balloon and put it into the stratosphere with the goal of getting internet access to millions of people all over the world who currently didn’t have it. Today, Loon has delivered connectivity to communities where the communications infrastructure has been damaged or wiped out. They provided basic internet to tens of thousands of people across Peru who were displaced due to extreme rains and flooding. Loon also worked closely with AT&T and T-Mobile to bring the Internet to more than 200,00 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria made landfall.
The only way to get people to work on big risky things, audacious ideas, and run at the hardest parts of the problem first is to make that the path of least resistance for them. Have them answer the question, “What is most likely to kill this project?” Work hard to make it safe for them to fail.
Give them applause from their peers. Hugs and high fives from the manager. Promote them for it. Give them bonuses and vacations.
Astro puts it this way: “Enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless optimism. It’s the perfect partner. It unlocks the potential in every idea.”