What prompted this blog post was this TED Talk by Harvard University Professor Michael Porter ( in which he presents his case that the biggest social problems that we face today may not be solved using the traditional channels (NGOs, Non Profits and Government) alone – but by businesses because businesses create profits and profits create scalability.
A convincing argument, specially when you take into consideration the numbers and the impact of the corporate pioneers who are making profits while solving some of the most complex problems we face today and even preparing us for the problems that are not even problems yet.
As an Indian, I was very happy to see Professor Porter mention the pioneering work of Jain Irrigation, an Indian MNC with presence in over 116 countries with the rare honour of being world’s number one in Drip Irrigation with Pipe Production, among other impressive achievements.
Although, I would be even happier to see businesses find solutions to tackle corruption, improve education and maybe even find a way to store the rotting food grains in a country where the government has recently introduced The Food Security Bill to provide subsidized food grains to the poor at a huge cost to the taxpayer.
But that’s not my motivation behind this blog post. While Professor Porter eloquently presents his case to the world, a “big business” house is stealthily working to increase human longevity, create self-driving cars, launch balloons into the stratosphere to beam broadband Internet to remote parts of the world and to float airborne turbines to collect clean wind power and ALL of this without thinking ‘How are we going to make money out of it?’ and ALL of this light years away from their ‘core’ business.
Agreed that if you’re sitting on a cash pile of $54 billion, it’s easy to take big risks and talk about failing forward. But then how many big companies actually take those kind of risks?
Moonshots (as defined by the Google Dictionary) is a project or proposal that aims at 10X not 10% improvement and has at its heart 3 core requirements –
- Addresses a huge problem
- Proposes a radical solution
- Uses breakthrough technology
Here’s how the Google Team defines Moonshot Thinking –
But wait a minute, what about the profits? After all Google is not a charity, is it?
Scientist and entrepreneur Astro Teller (who along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin runs GoogleX) clarifies,
“If you make something a little bit better, people might pay you for it; they may not. But if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way”.
I can only imagine what the world would be like if more corporations could be driven by such long term visionary thinking and take risks and risk failure (read projects Google Health, Google Wave and Google Buzz) when conventional wisdom suggests you to ‘stick to your core business’.
But isn’t that the advice that is dished out to all entrepreneurs in Entrepreneurship 101- make a difference, plug a gap, change the world, fulfill a need, change the game and the money will follow (in due course of time)? So then why do most big corporations let go of the same entrepreneurial spirit that gave birth to them in the first place?
Why are most big businesses content with carving out a niche and then doing everything within their power to protect it? What does the status quo win over innovation? Maybe they stop pioneering because they’re too busy defending. Maybe, that’s the curse of success. Maybe, that’s how big corporations ought to behave.
Love them or hate them but that’s where the Google guys are different. And that’s what other big businesses can learn from Google while they race to the bottom cutting prices and reducing costs and shipping the same old stuff in new packages – Google’s entrepreneurial spirit is alive and kicking and reaching for the unknown.
The team still lives by the core beliefs that gave birth to Google. After all, back when Google was just an exciting idea to organize information on the internet, the founders too weren’t sure how their revolutionary page ranking algorithm will make money. Ads and the big bucks came later. They wanted to change the world and that they did.
And I guess this business of changing the world must be addictive. It must be so difficult to get back to doing the ‘normal’ stuff once you’ve tasted what it’s like to change the world forever.
And this addiction to push the boundaries is what fuels the innovation at GoogleX.
The guiding philosophy comes from the co-founder and CEO himself. Here’s what Larry Page said in a interview with Harry McCracken and Lev Grossman of the TIME Magazine (September 30 2013, Can Google Solve Death? Page 24-29)
“For me, it was always unsatisfying if you look at companies that get very big and they’re just doing one thing.
Ideally, if you have more people and more resources, you can get more things solved. We’ve kind of always had that kind of philosophy”
GoogleX has shown that it’s possible to make big profits and big impact. To grow big and to still have the courage to risk it all. Now it’s time for other the big guys.
Professor Porter’s research says that you have more resources to change the world than Governments, Non Profits and NGOs combined.
So I guess the question is not can you but will you?