You know the feeling: One day you find yourself looking for “creativity” in the tiniest nooks and crannies of your business processes. And then it hits you: Somehow you’ve lost sight of the universe in which your business exists. Every successful leader has felt disconnected like this at some point. You don’t know what needs to change, but you know that you’re looking for the answer in the wrong places.
What you might need is a new mind-set. The best companies and best managers keep trying new ways of thinking, and sometimes they hit pay dirt. As Fast Company co-founder Bill Taylor tells us,
I can’t tell you how many business leaders I meet, how many organizations I visit, that espouse the virtues of innovation and creativity. Yet so many of these same leaders and organizations live in fear of mistakes, missteps, and disappointments — which is why they have so little innovation and creativity.
If you’re not prepared to fail, you’re not prepared to learn.
That’s part of the mind-set you’re looking for, but most business owners we’ve served have a really hard time wrapping their minds around it. Failure is never acceptable. If you had thought, when you started out, “Hey, failure isn’t so bad! Sometimes it’s actually OK!” then you wouldn’t have a company at all.
Two things to consider: First, when you think truthfully about the path you’ve taken, you will always remember that your toughest days and your hardest lessons were the moments that really made you – and your company – what it is today. And second, now that your business-as-usual is producing, the nature of failure, for you, has changed.
You are now in a position where you can tap into that intense, formative energy that, long ago, would nearly break you, and use it to take your company to the next level. Doing so requires a certain level of fearlessness, and to get there, you need to make an emotional adjustment.
Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X (formerly known as Google X) is considered one of the best managers of innovation in the world has some excellent advice about how to do that. “Taking good, smart risks is something that anyone can do,” he says, “whether you’re on a team of 5 or in a company of 50,000.”
If you’re reading this you’re probably already using modern management to get the best from your team. At well-structured meetings you study success together and create positive feedback loops. You’ve already created a safe environment where your team feels comfortable improving the way they execute your existing strategy.
So build upon what you’ve created and expand the safe environment you’ve created. Teller uses his to search for “moonshot ideas.” You can integrate a search like that into your business, if you take the right approach.
We do it here at ResultsBI. We hold “HackIts.” For one or two paid days, everyone in the company, no matter what their business-as-usual role may be, comes up with ways to improve our products and services. People team up however they want, which creates all sorts of cross-functional collaboration. Every idea is allowed and no idea is rejected. The only requirement is that at the end of the HackIt you can present your idea so clearly and so completely that everyone else will understand you perfectly.
Teller does something similar. So can you. Ask your team: “Have we explored every way to serve and earn from our customer base? What revenue opportunities are we missing? What strange, outlying idea could change everything for us?’ Record every idea, without judgment. That’s how you expand your safe environment into “moonshot” territory.
You will uncover some real gems:
A company that distributed precision-made pipe saved a fortune in fuel costs and time when they stopped using people on cherry pickers to inspect stock and started using drones with high resolution cameras. Imagine the actuary’s horrified reaction to that idea when it was first floated. But now that it’s business-as-usual, imagine that same actuary’s satisfaction at having all inspections on film.
Gmail was originally created at a HackIt-like event at Google. It now has 1.2 billion users. You can guess how that contributes to Alphabet’s market penetration….
A pet supply company, completely out of the blue, started making strollers for dogs. Strollers for dogs? Seriously? Just imagine how silly that idea sounded at first. It doesn’t sound silly any more; last year 1 in 10 American pet owners bought one.
The list is endless. Put yourself on it. You have to be open to all ideas if you want to get the ones that matter. Once you’ve got a few that inspire your team, here’s how Teller picks the “good, smart” ones:
We’re trying an experiment right now to encourage teams across X to speak up about things that might someday kill a project or slow it down….We’re calling our experiment “pre-mortems.”
Creation + Destruction = Creation
Teller brings together creation and destruction: first, the creative “moonshot idea,” and then the ruthless “pre-mortem” anticipating anything that would cause it to fail. If the moonshot still seems viable, then X proceeds with it.
That doesn’t mean it will work. And it’s at this point that leadership is truly tested. No one wants to fail. No one wants to own the idea that failed. But failure is part of the creative process, and “knowing that emotionally is a whole different problem,” Teller explains.
Think about the pet stroller idea. When none existed, it was certainly a “moonshot” concept. The company must have gone through considerable resources to produce the first one. And since it was a new product, considerable marketing dollars and promotional space had to be committed. Time passed with near-zero sales. But the company’s equivalent of a “pre-mortem” led them to make one excellent decision: they marketed in the United States first. Americans spend nearly $70 billion a year on pet supplies, and even when the stroller idea had finally become credible in the U.S., it was still an outlier in the United Kingdom, which is almost as pet-crazy.
Moonshots require that kind of persistence, and persistence has to come from leadership. All along the way we can imagine that the lack of doggie-stroller sales was blamed on poor product design, ludicrous manufacturing costs, poor pricing strategies, and failed marketing. Leadership had to prevent all that negativity from derailing what is now a major pet supply category. “That takes frequent encouragement, reminders, and reinforcement,” Teller explains.
Markets are moving so fast these days that sitting in a rut can be dangerous for any business. If there was ever a time to make looking for moonshots a part of your business-as-usual, it’s now.