I recall watching the moon landing on a black and white Motorola TV in our basement. The images were so poor and the sound was so intermittent and I had the attention span of a seven-year-old ( because I was seven years old) that I don’t truly remember seeing Neil Armstrong
A man was walking. On the moon. Cool.
NASA engineers and scientists had to be innovative to get a self-aware machine made of meat up there. They had to create new technologies and processes. (And the taxpayer was footing the bill, so they could afford to dream. And dream big.)
The residual result of that dreaming, besides making history and fulfilling the vision of an assassinated president? A ton of residual, cool, new stuff that almost single-handedly changed the face of the world economy.
Everyone knows about Tang (I drank my weight in the stuff every week as a kid) and freeze dried food, but did you know the CAT scan machine was developed from Apollo technology? How about the thermometer that reads the temperature inside one’s ear? Scratch resistant lenses? Satellite TV? Memory foam mattresses? And smoke detectors? And dozens of other technologies that we all take for granted today?
NASA dreamed. And they spent. And we all benefitted. This is what makes moon-shot-like projects so important. And they don’t have to be executed by government agencies. Any company can commit to a moon-shot.
Years ago, I worked for a well-known loudspeaker company, Boston Acoustics — a company that had just executed their own moon-shot program. They hired a maverick engineer and told him to design something amazing — a family of speakers that outperformed everything they had ever made — regardless of the cost. At the time, it was thought that only big tower speakers could deliver the range and fidelity required by audiophiles, so part of the challenge was to create a tower system and then a bookshelf system with the same sonic qualities. The result of his efforts was the Lynnfield Series. They were beautiful. Compact. They sounded amazing. They were crazy expensive. And they likely lost money in the process of creating them. But one of the things they gained was a deeper knowledge of how sound operates in small spaces and some very cool intellectual property. They learned how to make tweeters in a new way, with very small and powerful rare-earth magnets. They learned unique ways of suspending woofers within reinforced enclosures to transfer the maximum amount of energy into sound. Almost everything they learned on Lynnfield, they were able to pour into the creation of every other product they made, from inexpensive dorm room speakers to popular car audio components. And it gave them the ability to leapfrog the competition for the 15 years I worked with them.
Another good example of a company that believes in the moon-shot mentality is Tesla. They have poured massive amounts of money, engineering brainpower and time into developing the ultimate electric car. And the cars themselves are amazing. Every feature of the automobile has been reimagined. About a year ago, they did something NASA also did (even though they didn’t need to, as a privately held company). They released all of their IP and patents to the public. The thinking of Elon Musk, the company’s founder, was that if Tesla was to move forward as a company that innovates in the area of electric cars, it couldn’t do it alone. So it released all of its closely held information so that other car manufacturers could help them create what is essentially a new industry. Everyone benefits if electric cars become mainstream. And it took a moon-shot project to do it.
How about a non-tech example of an organization that is taking a moon-shot mentality in order to change the world? Witness my current client, White Heron Theatre Company on Nantucket. Most arts nonprofits operate in a very small sphere — they are local, almost by definition. But White Heron applies a global scope to the work they do. They built a multi-million-dollar theater and campus to bring world-class theater to Nantucket island, while simultaneously developing and producing projects that can play all around the world. It’s very exciting, mostly, because it’s a model that no one has attempted. And the time, money and effort they put into their craft will undoubtedly touch a much larger audience as they expand to other media. Everyone wins.
Any organization can take on a moon-shot project. And if yours wants to compete on a higher plane, you should, too. Here are the basic traits of such an initiative:
1. It should be hard. This, you would think, goes without saying, but it’s worth underscoring. A moon-shot has to be so hard that it stretches the capabilities and the resources of the organization. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”
2. It shouldn’t have a (real) budget. This is the part a lot of business people have a hard time with. At its purest, a moon-shot project should be one that you pour resources into with only the goal in mind. The cost is not nearly as important as the results. Granted, you should not risk the business’ solvency on such an effort, but to really benefit from a moon-shot initiative you actually have to shoot for the moon, and that means spending money and resources with your eye on the ultimate finish line, not the bottom line.
3. It needs to have a big-ass-audacious goal. Something that others in your industry, or out of it have not done. The goal has to be achievable in theory, but somewhat impractical in practice.
4. A moon shot results in valuable IP. Moon-shot projects throw off valuable IP in the same way steam engines eject water vapor. IP is not the goal, but it’s an inevitable bi-product of the initiative and it can sustain an organization for a long time.
5. It doesn’t just benefit you, it benefits everyone around you. Maybe even everyone, period.
6. It results in a great narrative that meshes with your brand in a strong way. Every organization can benefit from a strong story to tell. One that sets them apart from everyone else in their industry. And the best way to develop such a narrative is to do something different than everyone else in one’s industry.
Moon shot initiatives are not for everyone. In fact, only a very small number of organizations are brave enough, innovative enough and, frankly, crazy enough to want to take one on. As we at SAND embark on our own moon shot to create the ad agency of the future, we are not just advocating it, we are endeavoring to live it.
Does that sound like something you want to take on? If so, take one, small step.