Wednesday, April 26, 2017

I’m sick to death of moonshots

Risky and ambitious projects are exciting, inspiring and valuable, but calling them moonshots is getting a little bit annoying.

Google – specifically, X, their research division – seems to be responsible for the current trend of overusing the term moonshot. A Google-style moonshot is defined as any project that’s groundbreaking, expensive and has unclear chances of success. By this standard, almost any project qualifies. One of X’s projects is LinkNYC, a project to provide free WiFi in New York City – definitely a huge project, but questionable whether it deserves “moonshot”

The Cancer Moonshotchampioned by former Vice President Joe Biden, is healthcare’s most prominent Google-style moonshot project. Anything having to do with cancer is groundbreaking. With $1.8 billion appropriated over seven years, it’s expensive. Success, which is defined as making 10 years’ worth of progress on cancer research in only five years, is not guaranteed.

Let’s contrast this to the original moonshot from 1961, when John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to land astronauts on the moon. The project statement was just one sentence: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

That one sentence gives us an archetypical example of a SMARTgoal, even though the concept wasn’t invented for another 20 years. SMART is an acronym for five adjectives that describe a well-constructed goal: specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-bound. The SMART criteria are usually applied to personal, rather than organizational goals, but Kennedy showed that successful moonshots follow the SMART pattern.

Kennedy’s goal has two specific parts: land a man on the moon, and – importantly – return him safely to Earth. He could have simplified the sentence by omitting the part about returning, but then the return trip would have been implicit, and not a SMART goal.

The original moonshot goal is also measurable because it’s easy to tell if we’ve landed a man on the moon and returned him safely. Ideally, SMART goals also have regular milestones for tracking progress. The space program contained milestones like putting an animal into orbit and then a human, but the milestones were not as linear and easy to track as LinkNYC’s, for example. LinkNYC aims to install 7,500 kiosks. Progress toward the goal can be tracked one installation at a time to show a “percent complete” metric. Right now, they’re about 10% complete.

The A in SMART stands for “agreed-upon,” which means knowing who is committed to what. This works well for personal goals, but for organizational goals the responsible parties can be tough to nail down. Kennedy stated it generally as “this nation,” but at least that’s more than the Cancer Moonshot, which doesn’t specify who is supposed to be working toward the goal.

Was it realistic to land a man on the moon in 1961? It was definitely ambitious. Realistic is the hardest part of a SMART goal because realism needs to be balanced with challenge. Otherwise, there’s little need for a goal. But a “realistic challenge” is a much better goal than the Google-style criterion of “uncertain chances of success.”

Time-bound is an often-overlooked aspect of goal-setting. It’s absent from the Google-style moonshot definition, but it was present in Kennedy’s challenge. He specified the end of the decade, a deadline that was met with several months to spare. 

The space program not only achieved Kennedy’s SMART goal; it had a broad impact on science, politics, and especially technology. One of dozens of examples is that electronic circuits were based on vacuum tubes in 1961. Tubes are bulky and prone to failure – not a good option for a mission to the moon – so MIT invented integrated circuits (IC’s).

ICs made it possible to include onboard navigation computers on space vehicles, and as a side effect, gave birth to the computer industry (as well as dozens of others). In many ways, the side effects of the moonshot were more important than the main goal.

When I mentioned at the beginning of the article that I am sick to death of moonshots, I was talking about today’s watered-down moonshots that are expensive and risky. If you’re going to work on a moonshot, make it the Kennedy kind with a SMART statement and constructive side effects that will pay for the project even if you don’t achieve the main goal.

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