July 20, 1969, became an epic date in history when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. But in 1962, President John F. Kennedy’s plan to put a man on the lunar surface sounded more than a little crazy. The knowledge and technology needed to go to the Moon did not exist. Yet somehow, less than a decade later, Apollo 11 touched down.
Today, we have a word for transformation projects that reach beyond our means: moonshot.
3 Lessons from the Original Moonshot Innovation
It’s easy (even natural) to believe that you should work within your means. But that’s not what moonshot innovation is about. And when you successfully reach a moonshot goal, looking back at what you achieve can be incredible.
That’s true whether you’re sending a man into space or looking at business process transformation. Here are three things we learned from Kennedy’s original moonshot goal and the years since.
An innovative mindset can lead to more than your success.
Digital transformation is at the heart of business growth today—and it was in the 1960s, too. The Apollo Guidance Computer System that took Apollo 11 to the Moon had less computing power than today’s laundry machines. An iPhone 6 has 32,000 times more computer power than all of NASA’s combined equipment at that time.
The Apollo program boosted computer technology exponentially and positioned the US as the long-term world leader in the computer, electronics, telecommunications, and aerospace industries.
But it also started a ripple effect. Through the Third Industrial Revolution, Japan built on those transformation initiatives to become the second largest economy in the world. And according to Buzz Aldrin, one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, “The biggest benefit of Apollo was the inspiration it gave to a growing generation to get into science and aerospace.”
In short, reaching moonshot goals can have an exponentially positive effect on society.
Moonshot goals are closer than they might seem.
It’s worth noting that moonshot goals can seem impossibly distant, even as you make progress toward achieving them. A persistent innovative mindset is how you close the gap.
Tim Stevenson, chief engineer at Leicester University’s Space Research Centre, told The Guardian that “Apollo was the combination of technologies, none of which was particularly dramatic. Combining it was the achievement. This was a bunch of people who didn’t know how to fail. Apollo was a triumph of management, not engineering.”
Moonshot success is about enthusiastic creativity.
“We choose to go to the Moon,” Kennedy said on September 12, 1962. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Kennedy’s speech has remained an example of moonshot leadership, a perfect strategy statement for massive transformation. Achieving something that is rationally unattainable requires a bold vision under a sense of urgency, as well as the innovative use of technology.
But above all, moonshot goals rely on enthusiastic creativity and innovation. Business process transformation needs people that do not give up until they achieve their mission.
Today’s Moonshot Transformations
Nowadays, when we think of moonshot leaders, we think of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. Their respective companies—Apple, Amazon, Google, Tesla, and Meta—are driving massive transformations.
More recently proving the positive social impact of moonshot remains true, we have Derrick Ross, founder of Moderna, and Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci, and Christoph Huber, founders of BioNTech. They have saved millions of lives with their COVID-19 vaccines. And they will save many more with their upcoming cancer and infectious disease treatments.
But these are all huge corporations. Can smaller companies (even startups) apply this kind of leadership for moonshot projects?
The short answer is yes—but these business leaders will need a special formula.
4 Components of Moonshot Innovation
Most authors who write about moonshot innovation and leadership agree on a few necessary components:
- An ambitious and risky mission that aims to go beyond known limits via breakthrough innovation
- Imaginative, simple communication
- Augmented leadership that combines vision, framing, and team excellence
- Moonshot mindset as part of company culture
If you’re able to balance these components, moonshot principles can be applied to a wide range of organizations and business models.
How to Lead Moonshot Innovation
Massive transformation programs were traditionally carried out by the elite or economists. However, as Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson note in Machine, Platform, and Crowd: Harnessing the Digital Revolution, digitalization and globalization make it possible for everyone to play a critical role in successful business process transformation. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has opened a lot of doors.
A moonshot leader must never forget that they’re leading a collaborative effort toward an innovative culture—it’s not just about your vision.
A big part of your role is fostering innovative perspectives in others. People drive your business strategy and, by extension, moonshot innovation. As the African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Sometimes the smallest job can provide the biggest spark of change.
The process of becoming a moonshot leader often starts with explicit understanding of one of two things:
- Something you want to achieve
- A huge problem that you need to solve
Either way, it’s important to be (or become) an expert in your area. You’ll need to combine that knowledge with passion, patience, and persistence. Don’t make the mistake of believing passion alone is enough.
From there, you can start tackling your goal or problem with an innovative mindset. Here are three steps for the early stages of moonshot leadership:
Read, watch, and listen to everything you can about the issue you’re taking on. It’ll save you a lot of time to understand what has already been tried, what has failed, and why. You’ll also absorb the lingo.
The more knowledge you’re able to demonstrate, the more your people will trust you.
Compare information and ideas.
Reach out to the experts—these people are already deeply committed. They’re your best way to get up to speed on existing processes. But also involve your team, or people in your organization you don’t know well. Build your own idea of what a solution should look like, and then let others challenge it.
Anyone can be wrong—you, the experts, or the other people you talk to. But try to remain open to any form of feedback and don’t take negative responses personally.
Every great idea that transformed the world seemed crazy at first!
Try to kill your idea.
Once you’ve done enough research and talked to some people, do everything you can to kill your idea. This may sound counterintuitive, but you need to be able to play the devil’s advocate.
Find all the reasons why it won’t work, short term or long term. Do some process modeling. Understand the obstacles, and explore all weaknesses and risks.
If you can’t kill the idea (that is, if you don’t find a compelling reason not to go ahead), it’s time to get started.
Moonshot Innovation Needs a Thick Skin
Moonshot leaders (and their committed teams) should be prepared for tough, even cynical questioning and the need for improvisation.
And remember this: A big part of moonshot is failure.
As they say in Silicon Valley, “Fail fast, fail often, but always fail forward.” Bezos has shared a similar sentiment: “If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table.”
Leaders must have a mindset to learn from failure so that they can perform better next time. Business process improvement is a process, after all. Don’t expect to get it right the first time.
Effective networking has also helped leaders achieve big breakthroughs. Bill Gates had an early partnership with IBM, Cirque du Soleil connected with Quebec government officials, and Tesla forged an alliance with Toyota in 2010. Strong networks come from a combination of empathetic listening and active contribution, and they lead to a rich source of perspective, advice, and experience.
Moonshot innovation for business process transformation isn’t about getting things right the first time—remember, it took seven years to get from Kennedy’s vision to the Moon Landing. Even as the world changes in these VUCA times, there are some important lessons that first moonshot can teach us.
Focus on your mission, revisit the leadership steps, adapt as needed, and you’ll reach the Moon (or wherever you’re going) stronger than when you set out.
This article is an abridged and edited excerpt from Dr. Jorge Calvo’s book Journey of the Future Enterprise: How to Compete in the Age of Moonshot Leadership and Exponential Organizations