Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is reportedly looking to rein in X, a division of Google that sets “moonshots”(- i.e. big audacious projects seeking to solve some of the world’s most ‘wicked problems.”
Named after the famous JFK “Moon shot” speech in 1963, X has been responsible for some pretty cool ideas over the years – like self-driving cars and balloons that bring internet access to remote places.
The small problem is that they haven’t been all that profitable. Alphabet now expects X to act more like a business and less like a university research department.
The trouble, however, is trying to systematize innovation in the first place. As German design theorist, Horst Rittel, posited back in the 1970s (who coined the term “wicked problems”), there can be no one method for addressing wicked problems and there’s no guarantee design solutions will work out. “You face wicked problems by struggling with them, not by solutioning them. You argue, you iterate, you fail, you grieve, you fight.”
Innovation in other words is not like making chocolate chip cookies or automobiles. You can’t just set up an innovation “factory,” and produce at scale, which is what X was literally set up for. Innovation is messy, organic, and doesn’t necessarily replicate. “Laboratory” would perhaps have been a more suitable metaphor.
And just because you have a one trillion-dollar idea, doesn’t mean you’ll have a second one. Google pretty much invented modern-day search (and made a Himalayan-sized mountain of cash in the process), but that was twenty-five years ago, and they haven’t come up with anything even close to that in impact or profitability since.
The other issue is, despite all the talk we hear about innovation these days, there’s some indication that “disruptive” science has diminished over the last few decades. As nice as microchips, the internet and iPhones are, century-old innovations like the electric light, indoor plumbing, and the motor car have had a much larger impact on our quality of life, overall.
Perhaps that’s because when it comes to innovation, constraints are actually a good thing. The old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention” is true. Yes, the X teams want to solve some of the world’s hardest problems, but arguably their careers don’t depend on it. There’s a reason why so many big innovation stories start out with such small, unglamorous beginnings (in a dorm room or a garage or when it’s unclear how you’ll pay your ever-growing mountain of bills).
Throwing money at the problem doesn’t always work. As we like to say, nothing happens in the absence of tension.
PS – if you like this story, check out our thoughts on innovation as reinvention. Thanks for reading!