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  • The Many Meanings of the Words Incremental and Moonshot in Successful Change
  • The words incremental and moonshot can mean different things to different people.

    When I discuss my research into business success and failure patterns, I may mention that evolutionary change is generally more successful than radical change. People often interpret that to mean incremental change works best. But, not everyone has the same perception of what constitutes incremental change. To some people, any change that is not radical is incremental. Others may perceive incremental change to be only those changes that occur in extremely tiny increments.

    Perceptions aside, great success is often the result of rather gradual change, but it is change that is not restricted only to tiny increments. It can fall somewhere in between tiny increments and radical, as I pointed out in the previous issue (May 2014) of my newsletter, which is about Boeing's shift to a more incremental, rather than moonshot approach

    Like incremental, moonshot also has multiple meanings and can have different connotations to different people:

      •  Moonshot might be used to describe something extremely ambitious— something really challenging, where the ideal outcome might seem so far away that it is like trying to travel to the moon.
      •  Moonshot might be used merely to mean aiming high, or a pursuit chosen due to extremely high aspirations.
      •  Moonshot might be used to describe something that has never been done before. Since no one has ever done it, there is some question of whether it is even possible, much like landing on the moon for the first time.
      •  Moonshot might be used to describe something where there is not only uncertainty about the potential outcome, but also a serious downside if success does not occur. The downside might include, for example, huge financial losses, loss of reputation, or even the danger of serious injury, or worse yet, loss of life. This parallels the potential for devastating consequences that can happen if a mission to fly to the moon fails.

    Moonshots are often perceived as extremely risky. Yet, some moonshots are riskier than others. How risky a moonshot is can be tied to the way the term moonshot is used. An endeavor considered a moonshot due to its ambitious or aspirational nature may be less risky than other moonshots.

    It is interesting to see how the different meanings and risk levels apply to moonshots discussed in the media. For example, moonshots associated with Boeing and Google have had media coverage recently. In May, the media reported that Boeing would no longer use a risky moonshot product strategy. Google's ambitious project to collect and study all sorts of information about the human body was the subject of a July 25, 2014, Wall Street Journal article "Google's New Moonshot Project: the Human Body" by Alistair Barr.

    Before shifting its strategy, Boeing had taken a moonshot-like change everything approach with its new Dreamliner 787 jet. Boeing's moonshot was quite risky because such a change everything approach on a major product introduction could have adverse consequences if it failed. A serious failure could affect the company's financial situation, relationships with its customers, and more.

    In contrast, Google's Human Body project seems less risky because the project looks like a moonshot primarily in the sense that it is very ambitious. It is not a moonshot with a serious downside if it fails. In fact, for Google, there appears to be little or no downside. Google seems to have the financial and computing resources to devote to the project so that, even if the project were to fail, Google's primary business would be unlikely to suffer. Thus, the risk of serious loss to Google appears low.

    Actually, Google's moonshot project seems to resemble a pure R&D (research and development) lab function more so than a risky endeavor. Pure R&D may or may not be in areas that specifically tie to a company's business. Pure R&D projects may or may not discover something of value. But, if a company has the resources to invest in R&D, as Google does, there can be benefits to doing so, even on a highly exploratory basis.

    Historically, some companies have emphasized pure R&D. As financial conditions encouraged more cost cutting, however, companies have moved away from pure R&D. But, that hardly means pure R&D can't be highly worthwhile to companies like Google, that can afford to invest in it. From pure R&D, knowledge and expertise may emerge that can be beneficial to the business, even if it is not known up front what that benefit might be. So, whatever emerges from the moonshot Human Body Project may bring benefit to Google. On the other hand, whatever emerges may end up providing benefit somewhere else, outside of Google.

    Furthermore, although the Human Body Project may appear unrelated to what Google does, that might not actually be the case. It is beyond my scope here to discuss the biological frontier that Google is exploring and its likely outcomes. However, the project seems to be a Big Data project—essentially a data analytics project. Google is known for making extensive use of analytics in its business. And, as discussed in my September 2013 newsletter about Big Data, there can be benefits from Big Data if it is used effectively. Big data is not a magic bullet, and it sometimes seems to be overhyped. But, there seems to be a reasonable chance that something useful will emerge from the Big Data effort of Google's moonshot Human Body Project. And, it's possible that it will somehow benefit analytics oriented Google.

    So, to recap, there are several different kinds of moonshots. Google's recent moonshot is characterized more by ambition, Boeing's more by risk. These differences exist because words like moonshot mean different things to different people and in different situations.

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