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How moonshot innovations can be transformative – and how to retain the moonshot spirit as your organisation scales up

Madanmohan Rao
posted on 14th June 2018
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In this three-way conversation, bestselling authors Lisa Goldman and Kate Purmal share deeper insights on their book, ‘The Moonshot Effect’.

A bold and ambitious moonshot can unleash creative spirit in an organisation and elevate people to perform beyond what they think is possible, according to international management consultants Lisa Goldman and Kate Purmal. They show how framing, leadership and team excellence can achieve seemingly impossible missions, in their bestseller The Moonshot Effect: Disrupting Business as Usual (see my book review here)

Lisa and Kate join us in this conversation on new moonshots, leadership scaling, ecosystem innovation, and how startups can continue to retain the rocket fuel of moonshot innovation.

YourStory: How should a moonshot be different from the already ambitious purpose or mission of an organisation?

Lisa Goldman: A moonshot is not outside of an organisation’s mission, it is usually an accelerant. 

Kate Purmal: Ambitious is one characteristic of a moonshot. Another is a compressed timeline. We find that compressed timelines create magic in forcing problems to be resolved and decisions to be made quickly - which in turn fuels greater efficiency and higher performance.

YS: You cover a lot of successful moonshots in your book – what about moonshots that have ultimately failed? What lessons can we learn from them?

KP: Yes, many moonshots fail to meet the high bar of success. However, what we find is that by aspiring to achieve a moonshot, even if they fall short, they still deliver exceptional performance, elevate teamwork and increase the leadership acumen and capacity of the team members. So, failure is relative, as the benefits of a moonshot are measured on many dimensions that extend beyond the mission of the moonshot.

YS: What is your current field of research in leadership?

KP: I am researching the path to the C-Suite for female versus male public company CEOs in conjunction with Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute. The research compares 100 female CEOs to a similar cohort of male CEOs, to determine the similarities and differences in the past three roles leading to become a CEO, their board service prior to their first public company CEO role, their age and educational background, salaries, etc. The study will be complete and a paper published this fall.

YS: How big a role do academics and consulting play in leadership? Can leadership really be formally taught?

KP: Certainly, leadership practices can be taught, and that’s what we intended to do with our book. Lisa and I both advise and coach business executives to elevate their leadership skills, and to do so use many of the practices we’ve codified in our book. These include things like how to communicate, how to delegate successfully, how to be persuasive in presentations and when pitching proposals, and how to be effective when they need to communicate problems and recommend problem resolutions.

There are three critical aspects of leadership that are related and difficult to coach: risk-taking, confidence, and the ability to be decisive effectively with ambiguity. We find that these traits are make or break for CEO and board leadership.

LG: I am often asked to recommend a particular book on leadership that I think will be useful for leaders. My answer is always the same: close your book and open your eyes. I have found that observation and discernment are some of the greatest teachers.

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

KP: We have been pleasantly surprised with how people seem to refer to the book often as a reference tool. Several people have shown us their copy of the book full of sticky notes and highlights that they use to quickly refer to sections and topics. That is how we had hoped the book would be used. We didn’t really expect people to read it cover-to-cover, but rather pick and choose what topics to read.

We were also pleasantly surprised to be asked by the Department of Homeland Security and President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC), and Cybersecurity Subcommittee to brief them on moonshots.

YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new moonshots you have come across in business or government?

KP: The cybersecurity moonshot is very ambitious - it’s a committee comprised of representatives of more than 20 private technology companies who are working together to address critical issues around cybersecurity. These are formidable problems that can only be addressed with the collaboration of leading technologists across industry, government and academia - and is similar in scale and complexity to the Apollo 11 mission.

LG: There is a significant project underway to make vertical farming scalable and replicable. The success of this project could change the way we feed many underserved populations around the world.

YS: What are some good examples you are seeing of moonshots in the social sector?

KP: The ones that are most public are the moonshots related to eradicating cancer. There are also several I’ve read about related to providing clean drinkable water.

LG: There are extraordinary moonshots in the area of education and literacy. Making useful education available globally has the potential to unite disparate groups in ways previously unknown and unavailable.

YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their startup? How can they retain their moonshot spirit?

LG: Founder-CEOs often have to make extraordinary choices in their moonshots. One example that is most heroic is when the founders realise they must step down from the role and bring in a different person to run the company. This transition is most successful (i.e., most likely to retain the moonshot spirit) when the new CEO has the perspective and experience to honour the foundational DNA.

KP: Most startups attempt to solve difficult problems that, if they were easy, would have been solved by established companies. These problems require ongoing innovation - not only in technology, but also in business models, go-to-market strategies, access to funding, securing talent, etc.

So when we say every startup is a moonshot, it is because the very nature of their endeavours have the characteristics of moonshots. In my experience, startups rarely lose their moonshot spirit until they reach a certain size. Employees must wear multiple hats and generally have a relative broad and challenging scope of responsibility when there are 30 or fewer employees.

As companies grow from 30 to 300 employees, they start to hire employees that are less entrepreneurial, and so the moonshot spirit that is so strong in the early years begins to dilute.

YS: What are the challenges involved in removing key people from regular important work, so that they focus instead on the moonshot? How can these challenges be overcome?

KP:  The need to free people from their regular responsibilities to pursue a moonshot is one of the first tests of whether the organisation and leaders are sufficiently committed to a moonshot to make it a success. The moonshot’s outcome must be important enough to compel leaders to free up resources and make the necessary investment to be successful.

Hiring replacements and allocating budget happens all of the time in business. The only question when pursuing a moonshot is whether the moonshot itself is compelling enough to warrant the dedicated resources and investment required for its success.

LG: Often, the process of freeing up resources forces an organisation to prioritise and decommission projects that should have been abandoned. Taking on a moonshot can have the effect of “house cleaning” and releases a tremendous amount of creativity and productivity.

YS: How should innovators strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

KP:  In my experience, the most-successful innovators remain true to their vision (the what) but flexible on the path to achieve it (the how).

LG: Being able to distinguish the what from the how is critical to moonshots. Very competent CEOs have the insight to know the difference, or surround themselves with people who can instill that distinction even through the temptation of “shiny objects.”

YS: What are the top-three success factors for government and industry to work together and create moonshots?

KP:  I think it’s all about the leadership at the top. How do leaders create a spirit of collaboration and success that puts the achievement of the moonshot above the individual contributions and agendas of public, private sector entities and academia? That requires strong, charismatic leadership and an unwavering commitment to the common purpose of the moonshot.

That said, the scale and effectiveness of the Apollo 11 moonshot was, and remains unprecedented, and was certainly fuelled by the charismatic leadership of JFK, the ongoing commitment after his death to achieve what he had started. It also benefited from having people aligned around a common and powerful enemy – the Soviet Union and the communist threat.

YS: What are some ways people can awaken their inner creativity, and set “personal moonshots?”

KP: We talk a lot in the book about how to strike the balance between aspirational and achievable - which is not trivial. The key is to have the objective be both inspiring and possible. Then, the most critical piece is to deconstruct the process and create milestones along the way that measure success in the currency of the personal moonshot.

One example we often use is the personal moonshot of wanting to lose 10 pounds in three months. Effective milestones for losing 10 pounds are in the currency of pounds lost. So, what’s not effective is establishing milestones unrelated to weight loss - like exercise three days a week, and eat more vegetables. To be effective, it’s critical to create goals that are in the currency of the end goal: lose four pounds by the end of the first 30 days, lose a total of seven pounds by the end of 60 days, and 10 pounds by the end of 90 days.

LG: Personal moonshots are empowered by the participation of others. Serve your personal goal or intention by creating a “board” who will challenge you, provide partnership, and by whom you are slightly scared!

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

KP: Funny - when we wrote the book, we thought that once it was released we could sit back and relax. But it turns out that there is as much work later to make it successful, after the huge task of writing, editing, proofing etc., is complete. We’re still in that phase, so I personally don’t have much of an appetite to write the next book yet.

LG: I have found that publishing this book has extended and deepened my conversations with clients. That is what is currently exciting in my work, and it may be a while before I have enough breathing space to think about a next book.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience? 

KP: I think it goes back to your previous question about how to strike that delicate balance between sticking to your vision and adapting to a changed world. It’s related to the concept of “strong opinions loosely held.” Be clear and committed to your vision, and take meaningful steps toward achieving it every day, while at the same time being flexible and adaptable as to how to accomplish it.

Also, in our experience, moonshots are endeavours for which the journey is the reward. So much goodness comes in the pursuit of a moonshot, and it’s important to recognise and savour that goodness every step along the way. That’s the rocket fuel that keeps the mission fuelled and moving forward.

LG: Enacting a moonshot is about focus and simplicity. This is not easy. This is especially not easy with smart people who bring much competence to the table. Moonshots cannot get off the ground without a vision and inspiration that has those involved be inspired and moved every day, and it starts with you.

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