The Secrets of X: These 5 Principles Will Help Your Company Make Moonshots Happen

This post explores the inside workings of “X” (formally Google X, Google’s R&D factory) through conversations with my friend Astro Teller, chief of moonshots.

If you want to create a successful, hyper-growth company around solving tough problems, you’ve got to create the right culture, learn to rapidly experiment, and encourage rapid failure in your organization.

X’s mission is to invent and launch “moonshot” technologies that could make the world a radically better place…dare I say, help create a world of abundance.

Astro leads a team of world-class engineers, scientists, and creatives developing solutions to dozens (perhaps hundreds) of the world’s toughest problems. Some of their public projects include: the self-driving car, the smart contact lens, and Project Loon, just to name a few.

In the next two posts, we’ll dive into the strategies Astro uses at X to manage his brilliant team. These strategies come from our recent discussions and Astro’s 2016 TED talk, which was released a few days ago: The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure. They are important for every entrepreneur (and CEO) to consider in today’s rapidly changing, exponentially empowered world.

In Part 1 (today’s post), we’ll talk about the importance of trying to kill ideas early and the value of setting audacious goals.

In Part 2 (next week), we’ll talk about how to run high-quality experiments and why they matter.

First—What Is a Moonshot?

At X, Astro and his team look for the intersection of three key factors for the moonshots they take on. Astro explains them as follows:

  1. It’s a Big Problem: “We start with a large problem in the world that if solved could improve the lives of millions or even billions of people.”
  2. The Problem Has a Science-Fiction-Sounding Solution: “Then we propose a radical solution that sounds impossible today, almost like science fiction.”
  3. There is Technological Evidence It Could Work: “Lastly, we look for a technology breakthrough that exists today; this gives us the necessary hope that the solution we’re looking for is possible, even if its final form is five to 10 years away and obscured over the horizon.”

This unique approach to problem solving has generated some extraordinary (and some crazy) ideas at X — but the even harder part is implementing these ideas, and to do so, you have to ascribe to the following principles.

What Are the Principles for Solving ‘X’?

The following principles from Astro allow X to build processes and culture around selecting and executing their ideas. This list is by no means exhaustive, but let’s dive in.

Principle 1: Ideas Are the Easy Part

A lot of people think “having an idea” is the hardest part of starting a company or solving a problem.

The fact is: the idea is probably the easiest part…The world is awash with ideas, and most ideas aren’t that good. (We’ll get to this in a second).

The hard part is actually creating the ecosystem and infrastructure to allocate resources (talent, time, money) for rapidly evaluating and testing ideas. How do you create a culture where bad ideas are filtered out and people are continually motivated to keep trying new ideas? If you iterate enough and continuously toss out the weak ideas, you will (hopefully) eventually find a great one.

Principle 2: Try to Kill Your Best Ideas Early

If people, money and time are your most scarce resources, you don’t want to waste them on ideas that won’t work.

Instead, you want to kill these ideas early. The best way to do so: establish a culture that incentivizes killing ideas.

Astro explains, “The moonshot factory is a messy place. 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.” Astro pauses for effect: “That’s it…that’s the secret.” He continues, “Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer,’ Hey! How are we going to kill our project today?'”

Here’s two effective strategies X employs on a regular basis for killing weak ideas early:

  • Run a “Pre-mortem”: We’ve all heard of post-mortems where you analyze an idea in retrospect to find out why it failed. But what about trying to predict in advance why an idea is likely to fail? X calls this a pre-mortem. At X, teams typically vote to kill their ideas in a pre-mortem. When they do actually kill an idea, they are celebrated and rewarded by the organization.
  • Rapid “Eval-Team”: Before moving forward with a project, X employs a team to analyze the technical feasibility of projects. Given the known laws of physics and X’s available resources, is this solution physically possible? If not, kill it.

The strategy is pretty simple — you need to be constantly trying to come up with reasons your idea won’t work, why you can’t pull it off, why you don’t have the right resources to do it, etc.

The ideas that survive this process (the ideas you literally can’t kill) are the good ideas worth pursuing.

Principle 3: Set Quarterly Audacious Goals (Emphasis on “Audacious”)

Most companies set quarterly goals in a contentious manner. The manager sets a high bar to stretch the employee, and the employees want to set a lower bar they know they can meet. In the end, both parties settle somewhere in the middle and nobody is happy with the result.

At X, the goal is for each team to set audacious, ridiculously hard quarterly goals.

X has a culture where each team has the objective of impressing the other teams with how audacious they’re willing to be (Note: These goals should be just audacious enough that they are still plausible but not impossible).

The result is a culture of bravery and persistence.

Astro notes, “It is frequently the case that not a single person hits their audacious goals, but that’s okay…”

He continues, “Create an organization that looks like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and fill it with Peter Pans with PhDs. You need to make them understand and feel good about the fact that they are going to fail most of the time. And they’ll love it when you let them go.”

Principle 4: Failing Is Not “Wasting” Time and Money

“I often ask my project managers,” Astro says, “If you had to rebuild your last project from scratch (let’s say you lost all your code), how long would it take you to rebuild it, assuming you had your same team in place, to what it is now?”

“They usually say, ‘I don’t know…10% of the original time?'”

“There is a name for that other 90% — it’s called LEARNING. The job of a great manager, a great entrepreneur, and a great CEO is to try to make that 90% time shorter. Focus on how to make it as short as possible, as efficient as possible.”

If a team is working on solving a difficult problem and a manager complains that they are “wasting time and money and not getting anywhere,” get rid of the manager.

That so-called wasted time is actually your team learning…

Astro continues with his advice, “It’s also extremely important as a manager not to swoop in and kill projects you ‘know’ are going to fail.”

“You have to allow your team to fail and watch the snowball effects of what they learn ripple through your organization. This creates a culture where folks will continue to try to solve problems and won’t be afraid of failing.”

Principle 5: Perspective Shifting Is More Powerful Than Being Smart

Sometimes shifting your perspective on solving a problem is more powerful than being smart.

This is one of X’s mantras, Astro explains: “Take wind energy. It’s one of my favorite examples of perspective shifting. There’s no way that we’re going to build a better standard wind turbine than today’s experts in that industry. But we found a way to get our turbines up higher into the sky, and to get access to faster, more consistent winds, and to more energy without needing hundreds of tons of steel to get the turbines there.”

He continues, “We haven’t yet found a way to kill this project. And the longer it survives that pressure, the more excited we get that this could become a cheaper and more deployable form of wind energy for the world.”

When you are faced with a seemingly impossible problem, sometimes you need to shift your perspective, question each assumption and see what crazy ideas may actually be the basis for a fundamental breakthrough.

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Peter H. Diamandis, MD
Peter H. Diamandis, MD
Diamandis is the founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, which leads the world in designing and operating large-scale incentive competitions. He is also the executive founder and director of Singularity University, a global learning and innovation community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges and build a better future for all. As an entrepreneur, Diamandis has started over 20 companies in the areas of longevity, space, venture capital, and education. He is also co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with $250M investing in exponential technologies. Diamandis is a New York Times Bestselling author of two books: Abundance and BOLD. He earned degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an MD from Harvard Medical School. Peter’s favorite saying is “the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.”
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