Pursuing big ideas with Google X

Google X established in 2010 is an innovation lab focused on discovering the next Google by pursuing unreasonable ideas and building world-changing companies. The mission: Invent and launch “moonshot” technologies that could someday make the world a radically better place. While most innovation studios seek to improve the core product of the parent company, Google X has taken a different path, solve big challenges anywhere except in Google’s core business.

X has explored many different areas like space elevators, cold fusion, hoverboards, self-driving cars, drone delivery, medical contact lenses and many more. Whilst these undertakings may appear random, the underlying theme, solve a problem that affects millions of people, is futuristic and has a feasible path to get there within the 5–10 years.

The leader

TellerX is led by Astro Teller, a British-American entrepreneur, scientist, and author, who is equally concerned about the output of innovation, as well as the process. The types of people that work for Teller are T-shaped,  generalists with deep expertise in a particular area who can easily collaborate across different domains.

#The proposalBecause new ideas can come from anywhere, everything starts with a proposal. The best ideas are handpicked by specialists called the Evaluation team. They're responsible for processing proposals and accepting only those with breakthrough potential, which have the perfect balance of boldness and viability.

The proposal

Because new ideas can come from anywhere, everything starts with a proposal. The best ideas are handpicked by specialists called the Evaluation team. They're responsible for processing proposals and accepting only those with breakthrough potential, which have the perfect balance of boldness and viability.

Prototyping your way

The factory works on a breadth of different ideas, from hardware to software problems. The development is done in two stages. The first stage is evaluating the idea. The team is given a few weeks and a tight budget of a couple of thousand dollars to understand the risk implications. At this stage, many ideas are quickly cut.

The second stage is called the extended investigation. Here the team is given more time, a few months and more budget to build prototypes. What makes their process different from other innovation studios is their pursuit of solving the hardest technical challenge, internally they call this tackling the monkey first. They believe that resources should be initially invested in the hardest and riskiest parts of the technology, giving them a better core understanding of the problem they're trying to solve.

Getting serious about business

For years, this process was received positively and seen as a bulletproof roadmap to build products, that was until the dramatic failure of Google Glass shocked everyone. It simply surfaced a structural flaw within Google X. They had forgotten the other part of innovation, commercialisation. Great technology is useless if it can't find willing buyers. As a result, Google X created an incubator in 2015 called X Foundry, led by Obi Felten aiming to mitigate the risk of new ideas with proper market analysis and business model exploration.

It's a special program that lasts for a year where scientists are paired with business strategists from firms like McKinsey. At this stage, less emphasis is placed on the technology and more focus is placed on the context of the product, where they question if the product can be turned into a profitable business. The goal is to develop confidence that the product can exist comfortably in the real world and not live in the heads of a few inventors who have a rosy view of how the world should be.

Celebrating failure

High failure tolerance is intertwined within the culture at Google X. People are willing to venture out of their comfort zone and fall flat on their face. What X has successfully implemented is a safety net, where people feel comfortable with failing without the backlash. So much so, they have a reward system for those that terminate projects early when the signs of failure begin to creep in.

Team members are asked to submit a detailed report outlining what went wrong and why the project deserves to be shut down. Some might raise the question that failure bonuses can misalign the team, but Teller believes this streamlines the process, where dying projects are cut short instead of draining resources unnecessarily.

Success is possible

Whilst failure is the norm, success has been achieved. Several profitable products have been incorporated into the parent company. Their AI research known as Brain is being used in some of Google’s service, like search and translation. The biggest success story is Waymo, the self-driving-car company that was conceived 7 years ago, and is now worth $175 billion. It's still early days for the self-driving car market, regulations and safety risks are still uncertain, but one thing for certain is Waymo is possibly the most advanced autonomous vehicle.

Going for the moon

Many argue that these ambitious, exploratory and risky pursuits for moonshot projects can cost billions. The opportunity cost can be high because the focus shifts away from immediate value capturing opportunities, like how Google's missed on cloud hosting to Amazon Web Services. And so you create a culture where the obvious opportunities are replaced with wishful thinking and dreams.

Others argue that moonshot ideas can resolve society's biggest challenges and are a worthy pursuit. They galvanise communities and bring people together around a common cause - but at what cost? At one point, do you start looking at viability and feasibility?

Google X is privileged. The founders, Larry and Sergey are very much into discovering breakthroughs, and the parent company does more than $100 billion in revenue, meaning they’re in a cuddly position to focus years ahead into the future and guess what the next big thing could be.

Whilst critics are quick to point out the endless failures coming out of Google X, Google X is not so concerned with their track record, instead, they’re focused on a different aspect. They're trying to create a process and culture that will help systematise innovation. We the outsiders are focused on outcomes and they're focused on repeatable methods that can deliver real impact to the world. The studio aims to demystify innovation and bring a level of practicality, where technological breakthroughs can become repeatable. Google X is simply writing its own operator’s manual for innovation. And lucky for them, they have time on their hands.