Much has been made of Google’s X (now part of Alphabet) initiatives – some are envious, some are admiring, many are skeptical. Of the many public descriptions about what really happens at Google X, this article is a valiant attempt at describing what makes Google X either really special or really misguided (or both).
As the author states, “getting invention right is hard, and getting commercial innovation right is hard, and doing both together—as X hopes to—is practically impossible”. The great R&D laboratories of the past – Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, etc. – had their day but they failed in the end and no one expects that model of invention to reappear. But is Google X the new model? It’s necessary to first describe what that model is. Here are the characteristics the author highlights:
- A mission to solve big challenges anywhere except in Google’s core business
- Specific project criteria – an important question, a radical solution, and a feasible path to get there
- A rapid eval team consisting of a diverse team of scouts, skillful in surveying the terrain for signs of pay dirt
- Decisions made by groups of creators instead of singular creators or managers
- Specific organizational structure and behaviors
- psychological safety for people to pursue ideas others deem crazy
- “failure value,” a recognition that mistakes are opportunities to learn
- multiple diversities—of backgrounds, perspectives, and cognitive styles
- focus on refining questions, not just on answers
- financial and operational autonomy from corporate headquarters
It remains to be seen if this model will succeed. Right now, the jury is still out even though some of the Google X graduates are starting to be adopted. It will also be interesting to see if this type of effort will persist when money gets tight. A phenomenal cash flow in the core business can cover a failure rate that couldn’t be supported in other businesses. Nevertheless, Google X may be the future model of company led R&D. It’s a great experiment unfolding before us.