Astro Teller, director of Alphabet’s “moonshot” R&D division, called X, considers himself a cultural engineer (Alphabet is now Google’s parent company).
Specifically, he engineers a culture in which it is ok to come up with very terrible ideas and voice them out loud. Here’s one that came up briefly in a “bad idea” brainstorm the team sometimes holds to people saying anything that comes to mind: A fuel cell implanted in the body, powered by body fat. Obesity and limited battery life solved simultaneously–who would have imagined?
In Silicon Valley’s quest to change the world, sometimes terrible ideas–the theory goes–are needed to make room for audacious ones. A fuel cell that runs on fat was a patently bad idea that the X division never developed; Teller doesn’t want to suggest they ever considered doing so. But the fact that it was even discussed around a table for a minute is a victory he is proud of nonetheless.
In a TED talk in February and online today, Teller detailed how X kills its “moonshot” ideas, from vertical farms to flying cargo ships, and how the few that survive this process–like self-driving cars–go on to become major projects that could change something as fundamental as how we drive.
The X team aims to quickly end projects that aren’t going to work. Last year alone, X killed more than 100 ideas it had been investigating, Teller says. This included one project that a team of 30 had been working on for two years.
But killing a project you put hard work into runs counter to most people’s psychology. So how do you go beyond lip service to get people to actually give up their ideas when they’re not working? Create incentives that make it the “path of least resistance,” says Teller.
At X, when a team kills their own project because they find a fatal flaw, they often get a bonus, Teller says–not one so big as to encourage people to kill projects without good reason, but not pocket change either. Even more importantly, they are applauded by peers and supervisors at all-team meetings and often rewarded with a few months of exploration time to work out what their next project will be.
“People cling to: ‘you can pry this crappy project I’m working on out of my cold dead fingers,’ which is how most people spend their workdays. They know what they are working on isn’t very good or isn’t very useful, but they are afraid of being fired or of missing their next promotion,” Teller says.
“If they believe that they can be heroes at X for ending their project, if that’s the right thing to do–if they are ending it for smart reasons, then people aren’t just going to applaud politely, but really treat them like they did a good job.”
X’s rapid evaluation team is set up to brainstorm and vet hundreds of ideas a year. This team comes from diverse technical backgrounds in science and engineering and are often polymaths, good at a few different things. They’ll come up with their own ideas, borrow from colleagues, and also mine academic literature or probe suggestions from outside inventors or companies.
“Everybody is encouraged to throw ideas into the Rapid Eval pipeline, but someone needs to spend 10 or 100 hours actually beating on the idea to see if it can stand up to the first level of scrutiny,” Teller says.
After an idea is vetted and become an X project, the gauntlet continues and the team continues to try to poke holes in it. As an experiment, X has also set-up an internal site for “pre-mortems,” where anyone can post questions or concerns about any project–things like concerns about drones, for Project Wing. The site gives a space for colleagues to ask tough questions, without having to always seem like the downer in a meeting.
“If you get a lot of these questions out, prioritize which ones can be answered the fastest or the cheapest or has the highest likelihood of killing the project, then things start falling away–things that might have looked brilliant or were beautiful questions that just don’t work out. And the ones that survive this pressure are the ones we grow into larger businesses.”
Chief among the successes? X’s Google’s’ self-driving car project, which Teller says in the “early stages” of graduating out of the moonshot factory.
Teller is adamant that X’s culture can be translated to any other organization that wants to innovate, even if they aren’t backed by a company worth billions of dollars. It’s more about making sure that everyone from the CEO on down encourages it.
“There’s this meme in society that you have to have huge amounts of money to be audacious or think audaciously or approach problems in some of the ways that we’re talking about. And I don’t think that is true,” Teller says.
“If you’re really trying to create a culture in which people run at the hardest parts of the problem first, that’s not something in which people need a lot of money in order to be able to do. In fact, it’s the opposite. The only people who can really afford to waste their money are people who have lots of money.”