The value in thinking moonshots
In a world of exponential change, we are all explorers. Those who are not, risk being trapped by the dogmas of the past. Moonshots are daring exploits into the unknown. They are quests that could someday make the world a radically better place. What is tremendously exciting about the world we live in today is it has never been easier to do remarkable things.
Three reasons why:
- Unprecedented access to breakthrough technology in the form of cheap hardware and software;
- The democratisation of knowledge and information in the form of data storage and accessibility anywhere at any time in the cloud; and,
- The power of social, the ability to reach out and connect millions of people around the world in real-time; means it has never been easier for individuals to do their big bit or small bit to change the world.
I’m going to use Elon Musk to storyboard 5 moonshot steps. With his SpaceX, SolarCity and Tesla ventures, Elon is the quintessential moon shooter and everyone gets him.
Step 1: Define your Purpose
Musk’s purpose is to move the world towards a solar electric economy. He announced his purpose in his master plan (you can read it here). His purpose offered inspiration because if you want people to join you and commit, then you need to let them know about your dream to change the world. So, step one, define and declare your purpose. Make it crazy, inspirational and seemingly impossible. Then shout it out loud.
Step 2: Develop a strategy that will deliver your purpose
Sit down with your team and develop your strategy. Do not make it overly complicated. In fact, simple is better, you should be able to communicate your strategy in a single sentence. Drilling the essence of your strategy into single sentence statements is actually quite difficult, but push your team to dig deep. For example, Musk’s strategy, listed below, is a combination of ultra-clear simple statements of intent leaving no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation:
- Build sports car
- Use that money to build an affordable car
- Use that money to build an even more affordable car
- While doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options
Musk announced his purpose and strategy to the world eleven years ago by bizarrely blogging and posting it on the Tesla website for all to see. When company strategies were closely guarded secrets, this seemed a crazy and counterintuitive thing to do. Why blatantly and openly tell competitors about your plans? The genius in his modus operandi becomes clear in the next step.
Step 3: Use quests to bring your strategies and purpose to life
- Here’s the magical ingredient in moon shooting: Set your team an inspirational quest. One that breaks your purpose down into manageable and achievable chunks, but at the same time stretches people to do remarkable things, stuff they thought was impossible. It is this part of the equation which competitors will struggle to copy and why you can tell them what you are doing. They just do not have the same belief or passion you have.
- Once his purpose and strategy was in place, Musk set his team an audacious quest: Build an electric car capable of beating a Ferrari or Porsche from a standing start. Ten years ago, at a time when electric cars were the equivalent of a slow-moving milkman cart, his quest seemed bonkers crazy, impossible. But an inspired Tesla team did it! Imagine working on the Tesla Roadster project with the stated ambition of creating an electric car that can beat the best supercars in the world. What a remarkable thing to wake up, get out of bed and go to work to achieve. Oh, and while you are doing that you are also making the world a better place less reliant on fossil fuel. Double motivational boom. In your face, global warming!
- So, sit down with your team and develop an emotionally linked quest that will bring your purpose and strategy to life. Of course, we can’t all develop cars that will beat Ferraris or set audacious quests like going to Mars but we can find things in our own world of influence that will have a positive impact and inspire people.
- Here’s the important bit. If people do not feel emotionally connected to your goals, no amount of planning or coaxing will change things. We’ve seen this with Brexit and Trump. People make decisions based on their emotions not logic or facts. Hillary Clinton learnt this the hard way. Facts, figures and business plans will be used to justify decisions, so they are still important. But facts can be skewed. Connecting with people’s emotions and using the facts to support those emotions is a powerful combination for success. Great leaders get this.
Step 4 – Hold a “What Sucks Workshop”
Remember you are on a moonshot that will change your world and deliver meaningful benefits. You are not seeking a quest that will garner an incremental 10% improvement. No, moonshots demand gains in the region of 100% to a 1000% improvement. You want to aim to transform your customers’ or employees’ lives for the better.
That means radically stretching and challenging what you think is possible. A great way to do this is to use the eliminate what sucks in the lives of people most important to us (customers, employees, suppliers, etc.)
Nights of darkness suck! So, Thomas Edison gave us incandescent light bulbs. Germs suck! So, Fleming gave us penicillin. Walking, when birds fly, sucks! So, the Wright brothers gave us wings. Automobiles for only the very wealthiest sucks! So, Ford gave us the production line and the livable wage. Inequality sucks! So, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela gave us equal rights. Cancer sucks! So, Marie Curie gave us radiology and X-ray machines.
The great women and men who shaped history began with the question: “This sucks! Can it be made better?” When passion, commitment and energy is expended towards solutions that tackle what sucks most in the world, innovations emerge which no one could have imagined.
That is why this seemingly simple question is so excitingly powerful. The answers to “This sucks! Can it be made better?” have propelled fortunes, crafted successful careers and disrupted industries.
Now most importantly, do not think you have to lead a big team, control a significant budget or be the owner of a tech startup to do moonshots. Anyone anywhere, at any level in any organisation can embark on a moonshot. All you need to do is have the courage to dare to strike out and find new ground. Think through who are the most important people in your world are, and ask what sucks in their world?
Take the example of Paul Cummins a ceramic artist working alone in Derby, England, who went on a quest to create 888,246 handmade ceramic poppies for the art installation surrounding the Tower of London; commemorating the loss of every British and Commonwealth soldier who lost their life in The Great War. His moonshot inspired 25,000 people to volunteer their time and passion to make his dream a reality. Or consider Sam McCracken, a lowly Nike warehouse worker who started off packing shoes into boxes. Sam embarked on a quest to: Make two million Native American’s more active and healthy. His moonshot adventure led to the launch of Nike N7, the first activewear specifically designed for the needs of Native Americans. Sam’s passion and commitment to reducing incidents of diabetes in his tribe and broader community led to him being promoted to the MD of the now iconic N7 brand and more importantly changing the lives of millions of Native Americans. (More on Sam McCracken in the Future of Work Academy – you can sign up here). Benefits abound. According to Forbes Magazine, moonshot intrapreneurs are now the most valuable employees at many companies because they positively impact the bottom line, brand image and staff morale. They achieve this by coupling the power of big business with their own passionate, spirit and entrepreneurial drive.
Step 5 – Build psychological safety zones
Like most executives, leaders at Google believed that the best teams were those that had the best people — the right people, on the right bus — You want to employ the best engineer, the best manager and the best scientist and give them the best resource. Right? This is logical, there you have it, the perfect performing project team. But according to Julia Rozovsky, Google’s people analytics manager, “we were dead wrong.” The best teams, according to the study, have psychological safety nets.
A two-year long study of 180 teams undertaken by Alphabet (Google), a company which has embarked on countless meaningful moonshots, discovered that one trait — psychological safety — stood out and was shared by their most successful teams.
Most meetings and projects are full of a veneer of fear. Fear of failure, fear of seeming incompetent, fear of asking perceived silly or inappropriate questions. These fears can immobilise teams and prevent them from achieving their best. These teams feel like they are working in an environment where everything they say or do is under a microscope.
But imagine a different environment. A situation in which everyone is safe to take risks, voice their opinions, and ask judgment-free questions. A culture where managers provide air cover and create safe zones so employees can let down their guard. That’s psychological safety. What Google discovered is that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who were more successful.
Your role as a moon shooter is to provide the air cover, safe houses and corporate politics no-fly zones where your band of moon shooting questers can feel safe to dream, explore and do their best work.
Moon shooting quests are no longer the bastion of kings, queens, knights and rich billionaires. Today anyone can embark on a moonshot that makes a meaningful difference in your personal life, your organisation and your world. So, there you have it, 5 steps you can take to embark on a moonshot quest. Go ahead, explore, dream, discover and achieve remarkable things.
Every day look at the world, your customers’ world or colleagues’ world and constantly ask the question what sucks?
Suggested Readings and Resources
- Website to visit: Alphabet’s (Google) Innovative moonshots factory
Articles to Read
- Harvard Business Review: Moonshots for Management
- Singularity Hub: How to disrupt yourself with moonshot thinking
Books to Buy
- Moonshot: Inside story of humankind’s greatest adventure
- The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual
- Quest: The Art of leadership and competitive advantage in the 21st Century
Videos to watch
- What is moonshot thinking?
- Sergey Brin’s take on moonshots
- Astro Teller (X’s chief) on moonshot thinking