The Trouble With Moonshots for Existing Enterprises

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It was a quest of nearly mythic proportions, and I had a front-row seat to the action: allow anyone – anywhere – to make a satellite-based phone call.  The program was dubbed Iridium (named for the 77th element when initial calculations showed the need for 77 satellites). It was conceived of in the 1990’s and took until 1998 for the first call to be made.  Once commissioned, it was clear that the business model had shifted over those nearly 10 years and the only way it would be resolved was to go through a very visible shift as documented in the book Eccentric Orbits by John Bloom.

I’ve seen this play out time and time again: the press and investors clamor for glitz and $1B dollar impacts and our boards ask for big moves.  I can almost set the clock by it; the calls always come after the First Quarter’s operations review when it becomes apparent that the core products and services aren’t going to make forecast.  Suddenly, there is intense interest in identifying something new  – and something now.

Many very good leaders have gotten pulled into an unfortunate cycle of chaining the success of their innovation agenda to the success of one big project (or moonshot).  Moonshots have lots of issues:

  • They consume a lot of fuel. For example, connecting vehicles has been around for more than 20 years. Patents have come and gone for the early investors and volume production is still a long way off.
  • They are hard to steer.  They are very hard to keep focused, because it’s very hard to measure progress.  How do you report to shareholders that multi-million dollar burn rates are moving you to a pay back?
  • The real issues tend to be obscured.  When you drill down on all visionary work, there is always one (or more) besetting issues; something that has held off the application for years.  Many moonshots don’t talk about these issues, because they are not the kind of thing that leads to press releases.
  • Buzz is prized above learning.  When you are running an enterprise moonshot, you are under constant pressure to create press, meet with analysts, and declare progress.

Big moves come from a portfolio approach of consistent and persistent work.  Consistent innovators know that calling which nascent experiments will be a success or failure is very hard.

The truth is that businesses don’t jump across chasms. Every sustainable business move is a pivot of the core.  Sometimes it’s a small part of the core, but a thread of the firm’s DNA needs to be there.  When the only connection becomes financial, you need to really take a step back and understand how this fits the enterprise’s mission.

For example, I worked in a firm that rode two historic trends – Moore’s Law and Digital Communications –  through multiple business incarnations such as public safety radio, commercial radio, paging, cellular and federal government.  Moore’s law drove massive reductions in size, and increased the performance of the devices, while digital communication allowed precious radio spectrum to be used even more cost efficiently.  There two trends resulted in the supercomputers in our hands that we call smart phones.

Good innovation practice involves using what you have and taking your learning forward into the next business model.

So just how do you avoid the moonshot trap?

Here are some best practice tips:

  1. Run strategy sessions for maximum impact using tools that are inclusive, bring in outside viewpoints, and drive the executive team to a short list of robust choices.  Be very wary of locking in on “destination” programs that don’t have any strong starting competencies in the firm.  If there is no business unit home, that too is a competence that will need to be built.  Be sure to build senior decision teams with both visionary and practical participants to bring balance to the dialogue (see this post for more).
  2. Set teams up for success by using processes which set realistic expectations and risk profiles that are achievable. Be sure to release investments for programs in a consistent cadence.  Once you have a well-founded program, give it every chance to succeed by ruthlessly focusing on high-impact risk items, not mere numerical progress (there is more about this technique here).
  3. Build bench strength in your team members so that when cross-functional opportunities come, you can execute on them.  It turns out that through experience, there are four essential competencies of a growth leader (see post here).  By making sure that you are building those up and coming leaders, you’ll have the depth to do a portfolio and not just one high-stakes event.

You’ve probably gathered that there are a large number of process details, decision-making methodology and facilitation know-how that go into doing this well.  If you’d like to have a deeper dive on how this all works, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

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