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Leading by imagination: Are you a moonshot thinker?

Thank you to everyone who participated in the first #2020pulse. It turns out we are an ambitious bunch! An overwhelming 80% of respondents would describe themselves as such.

– I love knowing I’m part of such an ambitious LinkedIn family! There are three big things I’ve always believed about ‘ambition’: 

  1. It’s charged by the ecosystem around it…which is why I’m grateful you’re all in my orbit
  2. It grows hungrier in adversity… a silver lining to a thus far very tough start to 2020 
  3. It’s the difference between the talkers and the doers… so I’m excited to see what you all make happen in 2020

Let’s dive into some data.

Sparking the ecosystem

Looking at the hundreds of pulse responses all forming a piece of the statistical pie, I can’t help but think of the micro-moments involved. Each of the people who choose to click yes, thinking big is a priority for me formed an incredible 90% wedge. What does it take for each of these individuals to unleash their vision on the world?

Astro Teller of Google X’s ‘Moonshot Factory’ says “what the nice neat media stories never quite capture or admit to is the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re not sure what to do to get from where you are to where you want to be” (Astro Teller, Wired, 2015). It’s this dark side of moonshots –  the not knowing – that adds rocket fuel to the fire. It is the trajectory where uncertainty breeds curiosity rather than fear. 

‘We chose to go to the moon’, John F. Kennedy said, ‘not because it was easy … but because it was hard’. Kennedy knew how to harness human brainpower and public support. He realised that the size of the challenge actually motivates people: the unknown is the multiplier in the cognitive equation. The complexity and scale of the problems facing the world today require a cease and desist with business as usual.

What do we need to do to create the conditions for moonshot thinking to succeed?

Inspiring confidence

When thinking big is a priority for 90% of us, ‘ambitious’ is a self-selected descriptor for 80% of us and moonshots are an actual focus for 65% of us – where is the decrease in aspiration to execution coming from?

Interestingly, the gap between thinking big and moonshot endeavours is 25%, a gap further reflected in the data telling us that 22% of people admit I need more confidence to achieve a moonshot. A lack of mentors is identified as a barrier for 16% which presents an interesting picture of how we could unlock potential. When we think of brilliant minds in the past, the Franklins, the Jobs and the Curies, were they operating as part of a thriving ecosystem? Or were they lone misfits and mavericks? What role do we play in supporting each other to aim higher?

Jim Adams served as NASA’s Deputy Director of the Planetary Science Division and was responsible for a $1.5 billion annual budget for many missions. He says, ‘A Moonshot event may appear to the public to have happened in a singular moment. But in fact, these grand projects are accomplished by a team that has set aside their own egos and personal agendas to do what needs to be done.’ (Sustainable Brands, 2019)

I really enjoy the concept of the first follower. The idea that confidence is born of that relationship. The intimate moment of trust, shared inspiration and the cumulative energy that gathers thereafter. I have a friend who says ‘ideas are cheap’ and another who says ‘ideas well-executed are priceless”. Collective investment is a key component to any moonshot. Without cumulative energy propelling us forward, collective appetite for risk and diverse cognitive ability to offset each other’s biases, we try to solve new problems using old questions. 

Dr Christyl Johnson from NASA says, “So many times an idea for a solution is developed with a single purpose in mind, but when you step outside of your framework and consider possible applications in other markets, you may be just the missing key for transformation for that market.” Inspiration is the exponential ‘X’ factor in moonshots.

Beyond what we know

Time is the second most critical moonshot barrier. When choosing what we need more of in order to be a moonshot thinker, 19% of us say we could activate our vision if we just had more time. So even though humans today are more productive, process far more data and have a higher IQ average than we did even a generation ago, some of us are feeling considerably stretched by what’s already on our plate. 

Research shows that when we are caught in the modern-day ‘Busyness Paradox’, we’re only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks right in front of us. The fact that we actually lose about 13 IQ points in this state (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2014) steals possibility out from under us. What is the cost of challenging the status quo? A mix of science and art? A dose of rebellion and rationality? A combination of lateral thinking and laser-sharp focus.

The investment needed to get a moonshot off the ground spans personal and professional, political and geographical, material to emotional, financial to psychological… and beyond. The investment required affects families, friends, personal wellbeing and takes entrepreneurs away from their communities – in order to benefit their communities. In Australia, for example, the prevalence of mental health issues among small business owners is more than double the national average. An American study found that as many as half of all Non-Profit employees are burned out or on the verge of it ( 2011). Yet a 75% majority of pulse checkers claim that chasing a moonshot makes them happier as a result.

Purpose relies on the communication of a relatable problem and the execution of building a solution. Moonshot thinkers are by nature, people who enjoy complex problems. Astro Teller asserts, ‘You might think that something is impossible – moonshot thinking is to be bothered by that.’

Leveraging Adversity

“We would not have gone to the moon had it not been for the Cold War,” says Neal Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy (Skibba, InsideScience, 2019).

Inevitably, shooting for something big means that we are holding failure in balance with impact. Moonshots tend to happen when geopolitical factors ignite lots of funding and public support that pushes a field into completely new frontiers.

What levers can we pull in our policy settings to encourage risk? While 14% of us identify money as a key barrier, finance falls behind confidence, time and mentoring as an enabler. The shared economy of crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding represents a new way to think about collective investment and collective ownership. But is there more governments, institutions and commercial business can do?

How are organizations and corporations enabling moonshots to emerge by investing from a collective standpoint? The missing links of confidence and mentorship could be traced, connected and fused in a system such as this. I look forward to a world in which companies capture the imagination of their people. More and more we see leaders stepping up and stepping out to take on the social and economic challenges of our times. Are moonshots the domain of tech giants, individuals and passionate collectives? Or can local businesses, governments and institutions shoot for the moon, too?

Sorting words from action.

How do we define success when the problem is merely emerging and the solution is not yet imaginable?  ‘Moonshots are easier than you think’ says Matt Brittin, Senior Vice President of North and Central Europe at Google. ‘There’s less competition. They’re more fun, so it’s easier to attract talented people to work on them. And even if you don’t fully succeed, you’re usually far further ahead than if you’d just gone for incremental improvement. While moonshots are risky, in an era of rapid change, it can be even riskier not to take them.” (Brittin, WEF, 2013)

There will always be wonderful crazy humans who go above and beyond to be the change they long to see in the world. Our pulse shows that the highest motivation for moonshot thinkers is pursuing a social impact outcome at 32%. We need moonshot thinkers today more than ever before. The action of 90% of pulse respondents clicking ‘thinking big is a priority for me’, is a fantastic start. I dare us all to go out and take one action today to bring us a step closer to our moonshot. Maybe that is telling someone about it. Perhaps we can inspire another to help us. Maybe we can simply begin by unlearning.

What does it take to shoot for the moon? The courage to look up. And the courage to take one small step out in pursuit of what we see.