The top 10 things I learned doing Moonshots
We live in a time of chaos and disruption, a time between two stories — one that does not serve us anymore, and the other that has yet to be written. A time for exploration, experimentation, and wondering. A time of uncertainty, but also one of the opportunities where becoming more resilient to unforeseen events and taking bold bets will considerably payout, in particular in areas that prioritize care for people and the planet.
We can’t predict the future, but we can build for it! In the last decade, at the dawn of the XXI century, a new form of innovation has emerged to reinvent businesses, design towards a future we want to happen (not one we expect to happen), increase levels of ambition, become more sustainable and impact the world for good. A form of innovation that looks for and anticipates what could become the next big thing or disruption, but will be very difficult to achieve: Moonshots.
Moonshots is an innovation space, where startups, NGOs and large companies fail.
Moonshots used to happen in governments and universities. Places that could take long term risks. This is where the Apollo 11 Moon landing program (the original Moonshot), the Internet, or the Human Genome project came from.
Now the ability to take those long term risks is being embraced by some corporations too, in particular given the fact that as things change so fast, “the long term could soon be the next term”.
Over my career, I have been on various sides of the innovation pond. A scientist looking at advancing the research state of the art, a repeated startup offender in the valley bringing new products to existing industries, setting up different corporate labs to innovate close to their core, and later doing Moonshots and wandering into the open-ended — the most fascinating journey of all.
Moonshot thinking started in Silicon Valley with X (Google’s sister company at Alphabet) — self-driving cars or Internet ballons. And has also found a home at Alpha, the first European Moonshot factory, established by Telefonica in 2016.
So what is a Moon-shot?
A Moonshot can be something different for different people. As an individual, it could be something that is really really hard and very important for you, e.g. quit a drug addiction or change some heavy pattern that is not doing you well and could turn into a chronic disease. For instance, for me, it has been increasing my ability to get rid of old patterns and keep focus and a calm mind by using Vipassana meditation, which has definitely been a personal moonshot for me.
The same goes for businesses that need to reinvent themselves looking for new opportunities outside of their normal portfolio and core business and break many old barriers in doing so.
The innovation that stands for everything that makes us more sustainable in the long run but that needs to start Now.
This falls into the disruptive innovation category, which breaks the innovator’s dilemma, both terms coined by Clay Christensen. Such efforts are very difficult and critically important to reinvent your organization.
For Alpha, we understand a moonshot as being something that needs to affect hundreds of millions of people, have a net positive effect on society through deep tech, and be scalable to billion-dollar EUR business. A lot of organizations are in the business of 100M revenues, but Moonshot level ambition is much higher…
More Moonshot-like efforts around the world have recently emerged, especially around Governments. In fact, Europe has just announced a €100B mission-driven research and innovation effort (2021–2027), ala Moonshots. Japan is also looking to moonshots to solve long-term structural problems with ¥100 billion fund over the next five years. Beyond Alpha and X, Intellectual Ventures sponsored by Bill Gates and run by Nathan Myhrvold, has also been exploring how to do global good through tech.
Moonshots have two parts, the moon and the shot (s); the problem and the solution(s).
At Alpha, we consistently hel to the mantra: “Fall in Love with the Problem, not the Solution”
The Moon (or the problem)
The moon is the grand challenge that is hard to solve for. It typically falls in one of the 17 SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals), which are big problems that have haunted humanity for ages, e.g. energy access, reduce chronic diseases, improve learning.
It takes a fair amount of work, however, to define a concrete problem in any of those spaces, one that is well defined and validated with deep human insights. For instance, tackling behavior change to alleviate long-term chronic diseases, as opposed to aiming to broadly solve humanity’s long-term health problems.
When you find such a moon, and you back it with analysis and insights, people will typically not debate against it. The moon has been there for many years and no one has managed to crack it yet. And undoubtedly if you solve for that moon, there is no doubt that you will provide big value to society and that there will big business opportunities.
The Shot (or the solution to the problem)
The other part of a Moon-Shot, the hardest in my opinion, is the Shot, or the solution to the problem (the Moon). Picking the right Shot is what truly makes the Moon-Shot combination unique and worth pursuing.
There could be various drivers of solutions or shots to the problem — financial, policy, regulatory — but at Alpha we focused on technology-driven shots. Such shots are not about doing scientific research in order to develop a technology from scratch, but about finding a technology (typically in labs or universities) that is maturing to the point of being ready to get out of the lab and that can be accelerated.
Finding a great shot has its dangers as well as you may fall in love with it, and lose track of the problem or the moon you are daring to reach. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution! Otherwise, you may end up with a beautiful sophisticated hammer, but with no nails to hit. If you fall in love with the technological solution, you could end up with a lot of intellectual masturbation exercises, but no real impact. This is true for technology lovers, but also for entrepreneurs who are in love with their solution and ideas, rather than the people or the cause they are trying help.
Moonshots are not startups
The entrepreneurs reading this are, at this moment, thinking that I am hijacking their manifesto. And it is true to some extent. It is true that Moonshots have many things in common with startups. In fact, some people argue that every startup should be a moonshot in itself, and use moonshot principles to galvanize innovation and achieve bold targets.
Indeed, startup founders can and do ask powerful “what if” Moon-like questions about when and how something innovative can move the needle and be achieved. This brings a growth mindset, being open to research, experimentation, and mentoring.
However, as much as moonshot thinking can help startups, most startups are not a moonshot. While a moonshot organization needs to work with startups to deliver big impact, it also needs capital and corporate muscle behind it to take things to scale and provide the patient investment required — as opposed to quick Venture Capital returns expected in startups, which could stifle innovation. In fact, Moonshots are too early or too audacious for most VC investment, which focus more on reliability and are less risk-averse.
Startups take a mix of technical risks, execution, customer-value proposition and business risks — not always in this order, but with more intensity on the latter. In a Moonshot, the technical risk is typically much higher than at a startup, so this includes the need for specialists who can solve difficult and hard problems. High risk, and high potential reward.
As opposed to many startups, which have either a lot of business risks or delivery and execution risks, Moonshots typically take many more technical risks, which they can afford to do because of their long term nature.
A Journey from Belief to Impact
Through my experience setting up and then running Alpha over five years, I have learned a number of things that I find critical for moonshots to succeed, or at least increase their chance of doing so.
Alpha has probably walked a unique path in the Moonshot journey, different to the other Moonshot factories, one of the frugal operations, short-term proof points and intermediate delivery focus, driven by a cash-strapped funding model, with numerous exercises in prioritization and idea-filtration, and where the whole moonshot organization — including its talent — had to build itself from scratch at a distance from the parent organization.
A path, however, that has proven very insightful, as the learnings from this journey could serve other Moonshot efforts and leaders to exchange notes, accelerating their success and optimizing their failures and learning.
Moonshots Operating Manual — 10 Important Learnings
1 — Difficulty is understated: The long-tail innovation game:
Moonshots are really HARD. How hard? Much harder than you expect when you start out on the journey. Of course they are hard! Otherwise, if it was easy, someone else would have done it before. These are typically problems that have chased humanity for a long time, not mere shallow frustrations.
If you find people excited about going after moonshots or disruptive innovation corporate ventures (where most have failed), try to make sure they understand it will be damn hard to make this journey. There will be numerous times when you will be ready to quit, and then you need to remind yourself it is supposed to be hard, it is supposed to feel like a struggle and with increasing levels of friction.
No one is an expert on moonshots, so you should consider it as a difficult thing.
The reason being that this type of innovation follows a complex system of interactions. Like many other natural phenomena (e.g. financial crises, earthquakes, epidemics, or fires), innovation emerges from the connections and interactions between all of us and typically follows a power-law distribution (or long-tail distribution).
What this means is that if you plot its impact distribution on a log-log scale, it will follow a straight line.
For instance, the distribution of occurrences of earthquakes vs. intensity follows this kind of power-law distribution scale. If you see the number of earthquakes that happen every year and the earthquake magnitude on a log-log scale you will see that in one year there are many 2.5 size earthquakes, which we don’t even feel. There’s about a million of those, in fact.
Once in a while, however, there is an 8.0 earthquake. about one per year, which takes down freeways and bridges and causes major disruption. You don’t know where or when such an earthquake will occur, you just know it will occur roughly once per year. Innovation is the same way.
If you plot the number of Innovations and their impact, you will find many innovations (more of the incremental type) that happen all the time and keep your business running. But from time to time, there are a handful of innovations that transform everything, such as the ones that create a black swan phenomenon. This is Moonshot radical innovation.
You don’t know when such moonshot innovation is going to happen but it will happen. So it is difficult to pick losers and winners upfront.
Because innovation is a probability game, not a deterministic one, Moonshots are difficult because the odds are against you. Failure isn’t necessarily due to some sort of ineptitude, or that you need to get your act together. Even if you try your best, such moonshot innovation follows the science of complex systems, and many, many will still fail.
2 — Persistence is required — it pays off:
Moonshots are typically incubated for 5–10 years, after most of the Research is done at Labs and Universities. In order to beat the probability odds, persistence is key. Don’t expect results in 3–5 years. They require a longer period to be developed, de-risked and turned into products that can be the basis for large and new sustainable businesses.
There are other types of innovation, however. For instance, incremental innovation where you linearly project and evolve your business, or simply become a fast follower. This typically has far shorter and faster returns. I implemented such incremental innovation transformation at Telefonica over almost 10 years to drive intrapreneurship and corporate change (making an elephant dance, which has been turned into Harvard Business Review case — thanks to Open Innovation Prof. Henry Chesbrough at Berkeley).
There is really nothing wrong with this kind of innovation, in fact, many startup incubators and corporate innovation arms follow this model. But moonshots are a different beast. They fall into the category of transformational or disruptive innovation. They require you to dive into the far-fetched future as opposed to iterating from the present. And to benefit from moonshots and such thinking, you need to commit to the journey, a journey to impact that requires persistence, patience, and belief. In the beginning, moonshot projects can be weird, extremely fragile, and exotic, and don´t really fit with whatever else is going on in the parent company, and so they require patience to show their full potential.
The good news is that there is literature about a golden ratio for innovation, which shows that if you invest 10% of your innovation budget into moonshots, eventually that will bring 70% of your returns. But pressure, numbers, logic will intervene at some point to make you seriously reconsider going after Moonshots.
Be patient, be persistent.
3 — Setting up a Moonshot Factory is a Moonshot in itself:
Moonshots are nifty and exciting. However, most of the thinking in the existing business in your corporation will be about making sure things keep running well and at a predictable rate.
For instance, you want your employees to be paid on time, and your budget estimations to be predictable. These are not areas where you want to take risks and experiment. The same goes for your existing business, which needs to run like a clock, and this is also hard to do
To take the type of risks required by Moonshot thinking, you will require a separate organization from the corporate deterministic environment. This organization is in the business of risk-taking.
This is typically a much, much smaller organization than the mother company. That is a good thing because if it fails, it won’t bring the whole ship down.
Such a moonshot organization also needs to report right to the top, and with a different command structure. If you want to do moonshots properly, you need the personal buy-in of the Chairman or a board member from day one. And I just don’t mean that they approve it, but they need to get regular updates, they are excited about it, they are talking about it with peers, to the board, at a cocktail party, everywhere. Even better, if the Chairman has a hands-on innovation background and spends a % of his time on such innovation projects. If you don’t get this commitment from the top, your moonshot journey will eventually fail — 100% guaranteed.
Setting up such a moonshot organization or moonshot corporate venture endeavor will not be easy. In fact, setting up Alpha was a long process for several years. This required alignment and coordination from many different parts of the corporation (long term incentives plans, procurement, HR, legal, finance,…) including a special Disruptive Innovation Council.
Furthermore, such an organization not only requires a separate corporate structure but also requires a separate and distinct culture. At Alpha this is articulated around a set of core values including — Brutal Honesty, Curiosity to the power of We, Think Bigger, Patience/Impatience, and Sacred Trust.
Setting up a moonshot organization could, in fact, be a moonshot in itself, as most organizations are risk adverse.
Moonshots should not address topics too close to the parent company. Instead, Moonshot ventures are most effective in creating totally new businesses for industries that are primed for reinvention but don’t have a Digital or innovation culture.
If you are too close to the mother company, you’ll end up doing more of the same innovation already being done by the corporate R&D departments. If you’re too far, the parent company may see the new opportunities as too alien.
The relationship with the parent company should be like an umbilical cord. Distant enough to be independent, but connected enough to leverage some of its nutrients and resources.
It is also very important to make sure your moonshots have the ability to fail by themselves. In fact, they should only be killed within your moonshot organization, as this is the only unit that has the most know-how to understand whether things are worth continuing or not, and they also have the right incentives in making this decision.
4- Impact and Purpose drive Revenues:
Doing global good and having a social impact used to be the remit of NGOs or corporate social responsibility efforts. Traditionally, it has been decoupled from business and revenue opportunities.
Doing well and doing good don’t have to be at odds.
In fact, if you want to do good at scale you also need to do very well to make it sustainable. And as such, the number in ESG funds (Environmental, Social, and Governance) investment is rising.
With each major technological change, there has been a need to reevaluate the relationships between individuals, businesses, and governments and to revisit the social contract in place. One idea for what this new social contract might look like is summarized by the phrase “stakeholder capitalism”, that is, capitalism that benefits all of the stakeholders in a given community and where people everywhere will reap the benefits of such progress.
As a proof point, a recent analyst report from Merryl Lynch Long term business megatrends reflects 12 megatrends, with most opportunities found in social impact for people and the planet (e.g. food security, waste management, dealing with inequality, or fixing education). Such long-term social business opportunities will provide substantial innovation returns as they explore socially conscious portfolios.
Philanthropy is changing as well. Guiding philanthropy towards Moonshot thinking could transform philanthropy from a feel-good industry into a serious force for measurable good and new business opportunities.
Moonshot organizations, in fact, are purpose-driven. As opposed to other corporate ventures that focus on business delivery, or consumer innovation, Moonshots are about a mission and impact. A mission and purpose which for most people working in Moonshot are also aligned with their inner purpose and mission. Such connection, helps moonshots bridge the gap from belief into business impact.
Sometimes the long term is too far away, and it is Purpose that will glue people together and give them the raison d’etre to keep going and solve a given moonshot over the long and difficult journey that lies ahead of them.
A Purpose lead organization will bring people together, their heart and minds in a well-balanced dance towards impact.
Cherish the 4 Ps, Purpose, Profit, People, and Persistence.
5- Unlock Humans: Engineer Conscious leaders.
Moonshots are about taking calculated risks. You are in the business of risk-taking (not simply breaking things), and this requires the best individuals. These have to be the very best people you can find. They are ultra-high-quality people in many dimensions and incredibly agile. They should have a good mix and balance between generalists and experts.
At Alpha, for instance, we had a former F18 fight pilot who knew how to take very well-calculated risks. Beside him, we had an accomplished graphic artist and visual storyteller who made more intuitive leaps into the unknown and often back with unexpected insights and questions. You give them the freedom to act, and get out of the way to do what they need to do.
Culture is always important. But culture is super important for moonshots.
Make sure your culture is well taken care of and is Human-centric. Make sure you bring your leaders around culture, and that their personal purpose is aligned with moonshots. Your talent should be a mix of social and impact-driven, with cutting edge breakthrough in science and tech, and a spirit for big impact.
Moonshot teams by definition really need to embrace diversity. Solving such daunting problems will require multiple skills and disciplines that have not yet met to work together. For instance, a psychiatrist, working with an AI engineer and a happiness expert.
Such culture needs to be one where an artist is feeling valuable, an engineer is out of his depth, a theater director creates brainstorming spaces, and a serial impact entrepreneur can bring her own beat.
There is a lot of value in having a diverse team. But you need to create the culture that encompasses the rhythm at which each one ticks and encompass it and keep adapting. Keep culture as something organic, it should evolve, be challenged and iterated if need to.
The people that change the world, they change the world because they’re brave, they have a purpose, because they’re weird, misfits, because they’re creative, they’re diverse, and because they’re in an environment that makes it possible for them to do that.
Nurturing people and taking care of them is super important. Invest loads in that.
Unlock their human potential, understand if they are sleeping well, whether they are happy, optimize their food, environment, provide a highly curated wellness service, bring a holistic doctor, provide group psychotherapist sessions to help them go through problems, achieve consensus or improve the creative tension. They should feel that they are being taken care of. Invest in things that you know optimizes humans and provide an environment for people to be the best version of themselves.
You should also nurture a space of psychological safety, where people can be superhumans but where they don’t hide if they are having a bad day. Create a space where people can fail and dare. I know failure is an overused word, but you need to make sure it is embraced in the organization. As you live through it and its learnings, it leads to new superpowers. If you design against failure, you will soon become yet another corporate innovation lab.
Your mission is to create an environment where smart people can float crazy-sounding ideas which could become really creative solutions to tricky problems. Make sure you preserve such culture, protecting it from the corporate culture which so well serves the existing core business but would suffocate the culture needed for going after moonshots.
The emotional journey to doing something great is rocky and probably compulsory. Help your Moonshot team elevate their level of consciousness, support them through the incredible emotional journey of building a moonshot, grow them as individuals, and give them unique experiences. It will pay off.
6- Invest in Impecable Storytelling:
Storytelling will first help you to come up with new moonshot ideas. Coming up with a moonshot has different routes. A moonshot could come from the technology corner, e.g. a scientific research paper. But it could also come from a sci-fi future world (e.g. a world where humans are augmented by AI), an upcoming trend (e.g. change in demographics in China or Africa), or a grand challenge that is good for the world (e.g. the United Nations Sustainable Goals — SDGs).
As part of the process of finding moonshots, you have to project yourself into what is going to happen 10 years ahead of you. An example would be Scifi Prototyping Workshops, in which you create future fiction worlds and stories of the future, to manifest how the lives of particular people will be different once the solution would have become reality.
Make ideas concrete in the form of a science fiction comic, or videos which will help you get a common understanding of the future capabilities of current technologies and imagine all the different ways that solution will impact people’s lives.
Once you imagine a seemingly crazy, science fiction-like idea, you can Retrocast, which means tracking back the steps that you would need to take to get you from where you are today to your desired future and understand potential obstacles.
It is not true that finding a moonshot is a hectic process. You need to structure the process smartly to unlock great creativity, reframing, stress testing, and pivoting moonshot ideas. The process to find a moonshot is super important, but not the rate-limiting step. If you have the right team and culture, eventually they will find a good moonshot idea. But bridging the day to day short term and the long term impact future is critical, and Storytelling will help.
Thus, storytelling is hugely important not only to explore the future and the path to that desirable scenario, but also to increase your chances of succeeding at Moonshots. Because it is a long journey, you need to bring many along the road with you and keep them engaged. You need to bring your team, your investors, your board, your partners, the community, and the people you are trying to help throughout this journey of hope and delivery. Storytelling also helps people to share the moonshot stories with their peers (e.g. investors with investors, partners with partners, or board members with other board members); providing others with moonshot stories that they can relate to.
Invest in that, and tailor well-crafted stories around the moonshot, its purpose, and your tangible intermediate delivery proof points. Storytelling will align and bring onboard your Moonshot captain, team, experts, and investors. It will seduce them and inspire them to continue.
7 — Be Patient, and Impatient!
Moonshots still have the riskiness of research, but you need to execute them with the focus and velocity of a startup. Doing so is not always easy. You need to have the patience to let difficult solutions unravel and the impatience to undertaken them as quickly as you can.
Experimenting and learning quickly is paramount. Make sure your teams know how to set up great experiments where they can derisk loads of important unknowns with little costs. Even if the results are negative, this is great if you learn them fast. Focus on the experiment, not the result. The only real failure is that of not learning anything. Embrace learning!
Prototype early and deliver intermediate proof points. Don’t think too big for your intermediate experiments, in fact think small. If you take a small risk and fail, who cares. Build on that success of failure. Take the minimum effort to learn the most and do it super cheap.
Create quick objects from the future, videos with explorations of ideas, paper prototypes, and achieve intermediate moonshot milestones — which could even be self-sustained small(er)-businesses, before eventually turning into a full-blown moonshot impact.
Spend a couple of days prototyping something very rough. If it goes nowhere, no one will care. But if it’s interesting, you make the next prototype. Maybe a week’s work. And then you move on and on from there.
Don’t try to solve all your tech or science problems first, and then figure out your business. Instead develop both the tech and the business in parallel, by having a product focus, producing intermediate products you can quickly test and learn from that serve you as evidence of progress.
If you can find a finance partner to codevelop the moonshot, that´s great. It will help you test your crazy idea with an early player very close to the market, which in turn will help you derisk faster and give you more validation proof-points.
This rigorous evaluation also helps to quickly kill all those ideas that don’t match the moonshot criteria. Such an exercise is just as important as identifying potential moonshots. Create red teams, open clinic reviews, and murder boards that try to kill ideas fast, provide teams with new perspectives or help them abandon them altogether.
You need to keep yourself intellectually honest, with rigor, and be dispassionate about trying to find the reasons why the moonshot will fail and tackle them first. De-risk, and learn super fast.
8— Master Moonshot Launching, not just Moonshot Thinking:
People tend to idealize and put a lot of focus on the process of coming up with a Moonshot idea, predicting the future. On the Moonshot Thinking.
But creating a team, and building a company that can deliver on that Moonshot is super important. On the Moonshot Launching.
The types of efforts and talent that you need for different stages of the moonshot are different.
For the early stages of a moonshot, you need an ideation team. These are small, agile, and diverse teams that work close to experts, labs, and universities. They go through hundreds of ideas, and a handful of more mature moonshot candidates, and are willing to put their job on the line. You are trusting them with the future of your company.
Once you have a final moonshot idea, you go into the Moonshot Launch process. But before you put a big expedition together, you need to start climbing a bit of the mountain to see if it feels right, start de-risking the path and identifying obstacles. Engage field experts and potential moonshot captains early in the process, this will help you co-create the moonshot with your future moonshot team.
To develop a moonshot, you also need to do a good company-building exercise. This probably requires a specialized Launch Captain, a senior member of the team that is able to temporarily mobilize resources, attract talent and partners, to go from ideas to launching the Moonshot. In this process, bringing the right staff, starting with attracting the leader of the Moonshot, a Moonshot Captain (start from the rocks first) is critical. This is probably the most difficult decision you will make (beyond deciding which moonshot idea to bet on), and one that will impact the chances of the moonshot succeeding.
A Moonshot captain should be an entrepreneur that can take things from an idea all the way to scaling the business. Their mission and purpose should be aligned with the moonshot (e.g. this should be part of their mission in life regardless), and they should be able to set up a team with skills that have never been brought together before. A diverse team in many dimensions the better (e.g. not just gender diversity, but PhDs to artists, life experiences, seniority levels,….).
To give you an example of the type of talent that you require in a Moonshot, let me tell you about the first captain at Alpha: Oliver Harrison. Oliver is a trained Psychiatrist, specialized in Medicine and Neuroscience, who spent six years as Head of Public Health and then Director of Strategy, in the Health Authority in Abu Dhabi, and also five years with McKinsey healthcare. Certainly, those types of skills and profiles are not abundant in most corporations, let alone a Telco.
Bringing talent from the existing parent organization or core business will often not fit with your moonshot organization culture, or will not serve your moonshot needs (skills, entrepreneurship, ambition, social). Attract leaders and staff into the moonshot around culture, and be committed to passing on talent if they are not a great culture fit.
To attract talent, try and map the personas you would love to work with. Such personas are snapshots of your potential talent and their profiles. Map the archetypes that will best serve the various goals you are trying to achieve in your moonshot, and the observed patterns you will realize in those personas. Understanding those profiles will help you know where to engage with that talent, what information they consume, what events they attend, what pains they have, what they value, and so you will be able to reach out and create journeys for them into your organization. Get your team to do this persona mapping exercise together, as it will help them achieve alignment and give them a stronger sense of belonging.
Keep the organization as small as possible for as long as possible until you derisk many things. A handful of people can do great things if they have the right empowerment and flexibility. They should be “confidently humble” and cultivate good and effective networking to make things matter whenever needed. Develop an apprenticeship culture, with few managers and very few organizational layers, and with a lot of distributed power. Perform regular check-ins to see what’s working and what is not. And keep resources constrained and small budgets, they will act as a force of prioritization and focus, helping teams make sound choices.
In the build-up to the Moonshot, it is important that you bring an anchor player in that space to help you derisk things faster and be close to the real world. Be ready to share risks with others, master the art of spin-offs, joint-ventures, and accelerating those moonshots so they can have the impact. Think about the ecosystem and potential partners. Build a team that can think in terms of scaling from day one, and don´t underestimate the effort of assembling a team of misfits.
9- Nurture a Knowledge Hub and Communities:
By definition, you are not going to have all the talent you need in house or in your core business to build a Moonshot. Moonshots are supposed to develop new businesses in open-ended areas, and which are not the core of your current business. The skills that are required are new skills to your company and probably to the world, and you should not expect that finding and attracting that talent or new partners will happen easy.
Not only you will not have the talent in your current organization, but finding it, — with the right levels of courage, entrepreneurship, and creativity — , and bringing it in time to be part of the moonshot team is not trivial. Speed is essential and recruiting talent in new areas where you have no experience or brand is non-obvious. And since you are not a research lab, you are not going to have hundreds of scientists or engineers of various disciplines (like it used to happen in the good old Bell-Labs) sitting around waiting till you find a moonshot for them.
Solving that gap requires building a Knowledge Talent Hub, as well as building Communities for each Moonshot. This is about engaging with the community of experts, misfits, social entrepreneurs, Nobel prize winners, scientists, doers and kindred spirits that could accompany you on the journey to build a moonshot — whether it is for a day, a week, or for the whole duration of the moonshot.
Talent does not become people you recruit, but a community of people you interact, engage, nurture and make participate in the journey with you.
You will end up making emotional connections with such a network and community of moonshot talent, which you engage with on a regular basis. You have to think like them and look for them — where are they networking, hanging out, what language are they using?
Talk in their language. Understand them. They are not ‘talent’ or ‘candidates’ — they are human beings.
You also need to think about how talent will “consume” and interact with your Moonshot organization’s brand, not the other way around. You need to intentionally set out to cultivate a purposeful and soulful community of moonshot talent, and together celebrate Moonshoter’s hearts and minds. Building a robust culture that is impact-oriented is your best brand and way to attract talent. Your brand is your culture, and they need to be authentic, consistent and aligned.
Don´t be insular, innovate around IP arrangments to set up open moonshot ideation and brainstorming sessions, hackathons and open launchpad accelerators for World’s biggest problems, open labs and resident programs, expert conferences.
You need to make sure your organization is frictionless to work with, as you will not solve Moonshot problems alone and will not partner quickly and swiftly.
Get on the road and bring something valuable from that, find out what is happening in a research lab in Lyon or Zurich (not just MIT or Stanford), the culture in youth in Japan, or in the biocomputing space in Boston because you interact and co-create with them.
It is not so much about reading papers, but going out into the field, building and experiencing things together. You are likely to find saplings of moonshot opportunities beyond mainstream labs, in Europe, Israel, or Asia, that can serve you as feeders for your moonshot factory
Skyscrapers are typically the wrong places to experience the context of your moonshot mission or to engage with talent and communities.
10- Invent new Metrics: Measure Energy!
Moonshots are a journey from belief to impact. Somewhere in this journey, you will be able to use standard metrics and business plans used in the VC and corporate world to measure performance (e.g. customer acquisition costs, churn, paid pilots). However, for most of the journey, you will need to devise new metrics to track progress.
The way you evaluate and reward your moonshot efforts can be as inspiring as your driving aspirations to change the world we live in!
The fact that Moonshots are long-term projects doesn’t mean there is no plan to go at them. In fact, there is a very detailed one and you need to start now. Moonshots should be able to be de-risked in a phased way (milestone by milestone). And those moonshot milestones should have relatively short deadlines. If you say that you have 10 years to succeed, your teams will work slowly. Short term deliverables and proof points are essential.
Performance is a multi-dimensional word. As soon as you start with your moonshot route, wherever it is, you also need to consider all of its other defining aspects and metrics. For instance, if you start from the tech route, you also need to consider whether it can become a sustainable and scalable business, or whether it will have a social impact. You can start from anywhere as long as it fulfills all the criteria.
There is no blueprint for a moonshot to succeed. However, that does not mean you cannot track progress and understand if you are on track or whether you need to readjust. As such, at the beginning of a moonshot, it is important to define your killer questions (those that if not fully answered will make you abandon the moonshot, e.g. will the science work in such and such as way). And with each milestone you need to answer as much of the pending killer questions as possible, derisking the moonshot as you go along. Moonshot milestones should invest the least amount of funding to answer the next most important questions, as quickly as possible.
This requires a highly polished performance system to take it from an idea to a full moonshot. It comes down to definition and measurement. You need to be super clear about what a moonshot is, and how a moonshot needs to check all the boxes to go from one level of maturity to the next one.
Then, you will need a dashboard with multiple dimensions where you can say where a moonshot is at any point in time.
A Moonshot dashboard is like the dashboard of a rocketship, where you need to keep an eye on various instrument panels to make sure the ship is heading in the right direction and is not breaking up under the high pressure.
You will need to track things like how much you are derisking the Moonshot and how quickly, OKRs, KPIs, business modeling, financial indicators, quantitative and qualitative metrics that tie your money spent to the moonshot killer questions are essential. You will need all of those! And sooner than you think.
Performance is also a holistic living of a role, imbued with stories that involve characters, factual and emotional plotting, conflict, effort, milestones and resolutions. You can think of performance as scenes, as in a play, that will evolve and contribute to the overall performance of the learning of the Moonshot. Thus, a Learning Log can be very useful to track the various ways of “knowing”: narrative, visual, dialogic, quantitative and qualitative. Keeping a Learning Log as a companion to your Moonshot work, an ongoing artifact that collects and documents your progress and learning can be very important. All of your learning logs will constitute the institutional memory of the Moonshot. They will become the repository for knowledge instead of a mere list of achievements, and serve as a spirit of reflection.
And sometimes, you also need to trust intuition as there are things that metrics can´t tell. Seeing the energy in people at work, their passion or belief for what they are doing, or the shining in their eyes will help teams define success or failure.
Get someone who understands energy. Measure energy in the organization and make sure it doesn’t get stuck.
Nurture such energy and understand how energy moves and its flow, and make sure it grows. If not, react. Have brutally honest conversations and if something is not working understand why.
Today only a handful of companies have had real moonshot factory experiences. And I don´t think anyone has fully nailed a structured way about how to deliver successful Moonshots, how to give them a greater chance of succeeding. Ask the right questions throughout the journey, avoid too-big-to-fails and adjust teams and organizations accordingly — there may be as many ways of finding and running moonshot as there are Moonshots!.
Moonshots have one thing in common for me and I guess for you if you are reading this: We all hope to do good and make the world a better and more resilient place. We also hope to do well, while also making make things sustainable, and writing the new chapter of a new breed of businesses.
As for yourself, as a leader of moonshots, work on the organization’s energy blockages that imped moonshot innovation, be a great networker, nurture trust, share vulnerabilities, beware of “good news” only and “avoid to fail” behaviors, be a source of inspiration and boldness, stimulate constructive conflict, generate creative entropy across the teams and beyond, and help exponentiate moonshots by having them exchange notes fast and often with cooperation across the arsenal of talent.
Be ready to unlearn and undo many paths to learn again, serve, reconnect with the humans and their purpose beyond the moon and the shot.
Please keep bringing your input and sharing notes for Moonshoting, and leave comments below to start a conversation about this fascinating topic. Nothing is set in stone and the faster we iterate to get things right, AND wrong, the higher our chances in successfully solving some of the biggest challenges facing humanity Today.