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Your new work as CEO: leading the moonshots

“I worry that something has gone seriously wrong with the way we run companies. If you read the media coverage of our company, or of the technology industry in general, it’s always about the competition. The stories are written as if they are covering a sporting event. But it’s hard to find actual examples of really amazing things that happened solely due to competition. How exciting is it to come to work if the best you can do is trounce some other company that does roughly the same thing? That’s why most companies decay slowly over time. They tend to do approximately what they did before, with a few minor changes. It’s natural for people to want to work on things that they know aren’t going to fail. But incremental improvement is guaranteed to be obsolete over time. Especially in technology, where you know there’s going to be non-incremental change.
So a big part of my job is to get people focused on things that are not just incremental.”

LARRY PAGE Interviewed in Wired Magazine (17 January, 2013)

Larry Page has always played it big. Since co-founding Google, he has steered it into becoming a global behemoth. What is Google these days? The best search engine, certainly; but a great deal more besides. Google powers the operating systems of most mobile phones on the planet. It runs the world’s most popular email application. It is the frontrunner in digital maps. And, after making its reputation as a software company and information organizer, it is making the leap into hardware, too. Like it or hate it, Google is in everyone’s digital life.

Google did not do this by playing safe; it did it by encouraging moonshots. Moonshots are not about playing it small, being incremental, getting a little better than before. They are not about extending the edges; they are about taking bold leaps into empty space.

Page gave a much-discussed interview recently, excerpted above. In it, he shows his love of moonshots and his disdain of whatever is “incremental.” Take Gmail, for instance. In Page’s words: “When we released that, we were a search company—it was a leap for us to put out an email product, let alone one that gave users 100 times as much storage as they could get anywhere else. That is not something that would have happened naturally if we had been focusing on incremental improvements.”

Why does a company leap from search, into email? Or from PC software to mobile? Which of you would have the nerve to try that, to sail into uncharted waters that might just sink your career?

If you’re a leader, I’m afraid you’re increasingly going to have to. The age of the incremental change is over. Making your product just a little better is nice, but it’s not enough. Even as you tweak what you already have and extract more utility and margin from it, you are going to have to think about the moonshots. Many more of you are going to have to be the Safaricom venturing into mobile money transfer, crazy and risky though that is.

It will boil down to leadership. The leader must protect the existing business, while simultaneously launching a few insane moonshots. I have always said: the great leader must not spend all his or her time in the present; a good chunk must be spent in dreaming about the state of the world in five or ten years’ time.

You have enough people who can manage the present; only the boss can lead the organization into a future that isn’t even visible yet. That requires recruiting futurists; investing in research; making many bets on many possible futures; being willing to fail in most moonshots without bankrupting the company; and learning deeply from every bet, won or lost.

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