Here is the surprising truth: It’s often easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better.
Yes … really.
Because when you’re working to make things 10 percent better, you inevitably focus on the existing tools and assumptions, and on building on top of an existing solution that many people have already spent a lot of time thinking about. Such incremental progress is driven by extra effort, extra money, and extra resources. It’s tempting to feel improving things this way means we’re being good soldiers, with the grit and perseverance to continue where others may have failed – but most of the time we find ourselves stuck in the same old slog.
But when you aim for a 10 times gain, you lean instead on bravery and creativity – the kind that, literally and metaphorically, can put a man on the moon. You’ve all heard the story before: Without a clear path to success when we started, we accomplished in less than a decade a dream several generations in the making. We chose to go to the moon, John F. Kennedy said, not because it was easy … but because it was hard. Suddenly everyone from schoolchildren to the largest institutions were rallying behind the mission. Kennedy understood that the size of the challenge actually motivates people: that bigger challenges create passion.
And that, counter-intuitively, makes the hardest things much easier to accomplish than you might think.
That’s what 10 times does that 10 percent could never do. It can light a fire in hearts, and it’s hard not to get excited and think that other, seemingly impossible things might also be possible.
But how can we light this desire to solve huge problems more often – and in more people? We need 10 times gains to solve some of the biggest problems facing humankind because our problems are exponentiating: The population is rising on an exponential curve. Our use of resources per person is rising on an exponential curve as well. That’s a doubly exponential problem for us to solve. And since technology builds on itself, it causes each change to society to happen faster than the change before it.
We need to keep pace with these challenges and then pull ahead of them, and incremental thinking isn’t going to get us there. The only way we can do this is by shifting our focus away from mere 10 percent improvements – the traditional solutions – towards 10 times gains: the moonshots.
Moonshots live in that place between audacious projects and pure science fiction.
Just Crazy Enough
“If you’re not doing some things that are crazy, then you’re doing the wrong things.” Larry Page shared this recently when describing why moonshots matter.
Yet our society has many ways of telling us to play it safe: We say “walk before you run,” “slow and steady wins the race,” “under-promise and over-deliver.” In repeating these mantras we’re not training ourselves to think big. I’m a father to four kids, so it bothers me that even though our children think big naturally, our society systematically trains them out of thinking that way.
When I talk to people about it, everyone thinks moonshot thinking isn’t for them. We relegate the big thinking to someone else or some other organization instead, playing a weird kind of “not it” game. The small companies and startups think moonshots are a big-company thing because it takes a ton of money and resources, which they don’t have. The big companies think it’s a small-company behavior because it takes a ton of risk tolerance, which they think they can’t afford. Government organizations are under pressure to show immediate results on pressing, “popular” problems, so the longer term visions are hard to justify funding. And while academics love expansive, long-term thinking, their job is to publish the ideas and spread them, but not to do the system building itself. They can describe moonshots, but they don’t think it’s their job to take them on.
Not all moonshots have to be about technology. Gandhi’s Salt March or the struggle for civil rights in the United States are examples of social moonshots. But since I know technology best, I’ll argue here for moonshots that use technology to solve problems, particularly where social or policy solutions have been hard to come by. Here’s how.
Moonshot thinking starts with picking a big problem: something huge, long existing, or on a global scale. Next it involves articulating a radical solution — one that would actually solve the problem if it existed: a product or service that sounds like it’s directly out of a sci-fi story. Finally there needs to be some kind of concrete evidence that the proposed solution is not quite as crazy as it at first seems; something that justifies at least a close look at whether such a solution could be brought into being if enough creativity, passion, and persistence were brought to bear on it. This evidence could be some breakthrough in science, technology, or engineering that could actually make the solution possible within the next decade or so.
Without all three of these things, you may have a sci-fi story or a crazy idea – but you don’t have a moonshot. Not one that can aim for new heights and address a big challenge in a maybe-not-totally-crazy kind of way.
Consider just one example. We need to feed the world, and ideally without the immense resources, environmental impact, or moral issues some associate with raising (and killing) animals. So imagine creating meat that you can eat and skin you can wear … but that doesn’t come from an animal. “Food-grade animal protein,” in industry parlance, would help solve a seemingly impossible problem. And we have tangible proof that this is indeed possible: Last year, Modern Meadow co-founder Gabor Forgacs ate a pork chop that had been bio-printed with a special 3-D printer designed for tissue engineering. So that’s a credible first step toward the moonshot goal. Now, the question is how long it takes to get the price of that pork chop down below the ones you can find at your local grocery store. Moonshot.
Changing the Problem
Why focus on moonshot thinking? Isn’t it enough to work harder to collectively solve problems to make the progress we need?
Actually, no, not really. Because we might be solving the wrong problems.
What if we could replace all that effort on the wrong problem with the bravery to change the very question itself? Often, if you step back and apply enough audacity and creativity, the new perspective you get makes doing the impossible, possible. The moonshots that suddenly become possible include things like making robots that are 100 times as cheap, soft, safe, friendly, and strong – and that could do so many things for our world. Then there are more obvious – but no less necessary – moonshots like making renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels. Or not just recycling plastics but rethinking them entirely so they biodegraded back into the environment.
These moonshots aren’t just for the few experts in some moonshot inner circle. All of us can come up with solutions for society’s most intractable issues. We can train ourselves to make moonshot thinking not an occasional thing but a habit of mind. No one really knew how to build an airplane when they decided to build the first airplane – but they kept going and achieved it. We can ask the same hard, slightly crazy questions of our own and declare our own moonshots as individuals and as groups.
But we need to do more to encourage “moonshots in-progress.” We’re great at celebrating innovation when it’s already done, when the results are tallied, and when the benefits are obvious. Moonshots, however, don’t show results immediately: They take enormous persistence and willingness to take substantial risks over long periods of time.
So we should make sure those who have been brave enough to enter this kind of race have us there beside them … Celebrating the audacity itself, regardless of whether they ultimately succeed.
This article was edited by and originally appeared on Wired Opinion