Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The X Factor

"One of the top ten jobs in the world"  - that's how TED's Chris Anderson described Astro Teller's job as leader of X, Google's moonshot factory. Moonshot because the projects are high-risk and high-opportunity, and factory because of the intent to operationalize.  The talk fit beautifully into TED's theme for this year's conference, Dream.

Teller laid out the rules at X:

  • Dream Big: Look for huge problems that affect millions of people, then propose a radical solution based on a breakthrough technology. Google's driverless cars fit that frame. And Project Loon to use balloons to deliver highspeed Internet to remote locations looks very promising.

  • Expect Failure: If you're going to dream, or innovate, you have to prepare for failure and ruthlessly kill failed projects. Otherwise you end up with what my friend Scott Anthony calls 'zombie projects', walking dead projects that suck resources and morale. X is said to have killed 100 projects over the last year. They killed vertical farming because of the inability to grow staple crops like rice and grains. 
  • Fail Early: Innovation projects involve knocking down obstacles one by one, gaining information each time about how to proceed. Teller emphasized the importance of tackling the toughest constraint first so you can kill quickly before spending too much money. The moonshot to build a buoyant cargo ship was abandoned because building a prototype would have been too expensive. "You don't want to spend $200 million on your first data point"
  • Celebrate Failure: Since acknowledging failure goes against human nature, X explicitly encourages such behaviour. When a project leader declares a project a failure, there's a big celebration - high fives, cheers, clapping and shouting. And, most importantly, a promotion.

These are all lessons I try to get across in my own innovation lectures. I'll certainly be using Teller's talk to help bring those lessons to life.

Teller was speaking at the opening session of 2016, which was live-streamed to a number of cinemas around the world. Our theatre in Toronto was sold out, perhaps a harbinger of more such events in the future.

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