Big Time

You usually don’t want to fail — unless there is a clear secondary gain, like getting yourself fired from a bad job or thwarting a parent who is over-invested in your every success. But we can be too careful. Risk-taking – even excessive risk-taking – may be the path to surprising discoveries and important breakthroughs, according to Astro Teller, Google’s self-described “Captain of Moonshots.”

Google has set up a lab to attack really big problems, Google X, what they call the “Moonshot Factory,” according to the BBC. The “X” stands for the unknown, of course, but it also stands for the number 10, which is how many years they are prepared to work at any given goal before getting it right.

Teller notes: “You must reward people for failing. If not, they won’t take risks and make breakthroughs. If you don’t reward failure, people will hang on to a doomed idea for fear of the consequences. That wastes time and saps an organization’s spirit.”

Teller says he gets pitched lots of cool ideas, like a frictionless surface that can levitate objects. “That didn’t make the cut,” he says, because “it’s not a problem.” “After identifying a problem,” he says, “there has to be a science fiction-sounding product or service that, if it worked, would make that problem go away.” He quickly adds a third feature of a Google X moonshot: “There has to be some reason to believe the science or technology underpinning that solution, that makes us think the idea is only mostly crazy.”

Probably the best-known example of a Google “moonshot” is their work on self-driving cars. The problem it addresses is the death of a million people a year as the result of roadway accidents. “The science fiction solution it came up with was driverless cars that don’t crash.” According to the BBC: “Google has now clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles of testing that suggests this technology will work and could transform our world.” (See, “Secret Google lab ‘rewards staff for failure’”)

Google X projects have many inspirations and many starting points. But Mr. Teller says “not one of them has started from the conventional business question: ‘How can we make a ton of money?’ That is, he explains, because these ideas are about huge, transformative, disruptive change, not the marginal, incremental change of a conventional business.”

That’s visionary, but it also calls into question the rational behind most businesses. Google has deep pockets, very deep pockets – along with an unusual disregard for the bottom line. Could it be that this represents a freakish geek mentality, a disregard for money? Their motto has been “don’t be evil.” Perhaps that boils down to solving problems and having fun.

On the other hand, it could be that this is a new business model poised to produce our first multi-trillion dollar business.

I suspect, it’s that. For a business, profits are essential — eventually. But in an age of “investor capitalism,” what matters more than profits is the price of its stock. Investors today are not looking for dividends but for shareholder value. Google’s stock prices have risen astonishingly, but from the perspective of the giant potential payoffs from “moonshots,” today’s profits may be virtually irrelevant.

The model, here, is Apple, swollen with profit but struggling to grow its stock price and attract new investors. Financial commentators note that Apple needs something like a “moonshot” to take it to a new level, something beyond the iPhone.

Perhaps, for Google, the sky is actually the limit.