Your new work as CEO: leading the moonshots

by Sunny Bindra on March 4, 2013 · 6 comments

in Business Daily

“I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.
So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental.”

LARRY PAGE Interviewed in Wired Magazine (17 January, 2013)

Larry Page has always played it big. Since co-founding Google, he has steered it into becoming a global behemoth. What is Google these days? The best search engine, certainly; but a great deal more besides. Google powers the operating systems of most mobile phones on the planet. It runs the world’s most popular email application. It is the frontrunner in digital maps. And, after making its reputation as a software company and information organizer, it is making the leap into hardware, too. Like it or hate it, Google is in everyone’s digital life.

Google did not do this by playing safe; it did it by encouraging moonshots. Moonshots are not about playing it small, being incremental, getting a little better than before. They are not about extending the edges; they are about taking bold leaps into empty space.

Page gave a much-discussed interview recently, excerpted above. In it, he shows his love of moonshots and his disdain of whatever is “incremental.” Take Gmail, for instance. In Page’s words: “When we released that, we were a search company—it was a leap for us to put out an email product, let alone one that gave users 100 times as much storage as they could get anywhere else. That is not something that would have happened naturally if we had been focusing on incremental improvements.”

Why does a company leap from search, into email? Or from PC software to mobile? Which of you would have the nerve to try that, to sail into uncharted waters that might just sink your career?

If you’re a leader, I’m afraid you’re increasingly going to have to. The age of the incremental change is over. Making your product just a little better is nice, but it’s not enough. Even as you tweak what you already have and extract more utility and margin from it, you are going to have to think about the moonshots. Many more of you are going to have to be the Safaricom venturing into mobile money transfer, crazy and risky though that is.

It will boil down to leadership. The leader must protect the existing business, while simultaneously launching a few insane moonshots. I have always said: the great leader must not spend all his or her time in the present; a good chunk must be spent in dreaming about the state of the world in five or ten years’ time.

You have enough people who can manage the present; only the boss can lead the organization into a future that isn’t even visible yet. That requires recruiting futurists; investing in research; making many bets on many possible futures; being willing to fail in most moonshots without bankrupting the company; and learning deeply from every bet, won or lost.

Related posts:

  1. Who should be losing sleep over the rise of Safaricom?
  2. Microsoft’s moment of truth is here
  3. Apple’s maps debacle – a bridge too far?
  4. Would your board employ a young, female, pregnant CEO?
  5. How a famous company failed to spot strategic upheaval

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kimenyi Waruhiu March 4, 2013 at 11:56 am

Mr Bindra

What a brilliant piece, and apt example! Truly inspiring!

Kenya’s true innovator in the recent past HAS been Safaricom with MPesa, and their moonshot maker, Mr Joseph. None of the ‘me-too’ folks that came after him have innovated in as risky a way, and hence their mediocrity.

Despite all the noise about our own ‘Silicon Savannah’, no-one is taking as large a punt, relegating our so-called innovation to just the very unique moniker. Goggle’s example is indeed inspiring for the entrepreneurs that are the majority of Kenya’s small business owners; innovate and remain in start-up mode, no matter your size.

Kimenyi

[Reply]

Kimenyi Waruhiu Reply:

Mr Bindra

Para 3 should have read Google, not Goggle. Apologies, I sent this of my phone while own queuing to vote… I know, no excuse,…

Kimenyi

[Reply]

Sunny Bindra Reply:

Kimenyi:

And you are one of the few people I know who would:

A) Notice the error
B) Be concerned enough to correct it!

[Reply]

Sunny Bindra Reply:

Kimenyi:

At the time of MPesa, moon shots were seen as brave, bold, brazen – as well as reckless.

Now they are a necessity. Me-too incrementalism just won’t cut it.

[Reply]

2 khama March 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm

What a piece am in agreement leaders should visual ahead and its also important for them to share vision with employees and encourage intraprenuership like google/facebook.

[Reply]

3 wamoronjia March 10, 2013 at 11:42 pm

The ‘killer sentence’ was: Many more of you are going to have to be the Safaricom venturing into mobile money transfer, crazy and risky though that is.

[Reply]

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