Moonshots and behaviour change.

It feels right to be ambitious and aim sky-high when it comes to issues like inequality or well-being. But are these ‘moonshots’ effective when it comes to behaviour change? I turn to Luis Andre Barroso from Google and Donatello from the Ninja Turtles for an answer:

"Don’t get me wrong. I want flying drones that can bring me fresh produce. I’m excited about contact lenses that measure blood sugar. And I look forward to the day that self-driving cars are on the road everywhere. These initiatives are examples of some visionary programs being pursued by Google and Alphabet teams, collectively referred to as moonshots — disruptive, 10X leaps in technology.

But there has been a growing perception that moonshots are the primary model for radical innovation at Google, and chiefly responsible for our greatest product and technical achievements. What I have seen during my 15 years at Google does not match that perception. I contend that the bulk of our successes have been the result of the methodical, relentless, and persistent pursuit of 1.3-2X opportunities — what I have come to call “roofshots”.

Luis André Barroso — Google fellow and VP of engineering

This excerpt from Luis Andre Barroso made me think of the Ninja Turtles (don’t ask me why). My favourite was Donatello. He was the sensible one; the scientific one; the methodical, relentless, persistent one. If Donatello turned his skills to management consultancy, I’m sure he’d champion the marginal gains of Luiz Andre Barroso's Roofshot Manifesto. And what a spin-off show that could be…

But Donatello would have his detractors. Fun-loving Michelangelo would dismiss the approach as boring (and there are more than a few Michelangelo’s in the business world). But perhaps Raphael - with all his pent up aggression - would be the more compelling competitor. ‘Why are we mucking about in the margins?!! Let’s make an army of robots with Bitcoins for eyes that self-generate their energy from big data’.

He might have a point. The horse and cart didn’t marginally evolve into the car, and blockbuster didn’t tweak itself into Netflix. Sometimes products and services need to be completely redesigned. Especially in a VUCA world where disruption is the new normal, technological change is exponential and [insert your own cliché here].

My problem is when this idea is applied to people. It’s not in our nature to transform from tadpole to frog or frog to prince. So, when we apply a moonshot approach to culture change things tend to go wrong.  We try to eradicate unethical behaviour with zero-tolerance and mandatory training regimes. And we attempt to design inclusive behaviour by closing 8,000 stores and drilling it into our employees over four hours. (Yes, that’s aimed at Starbucks.)

Each of these moonshots is an enormous bet, which is unlikely to pay off. Roofshots – small changes to our behaviour that aggregate over time - are a safer, more promising alternative. They just aren’t glamorous. Unfortunately, Donatello’s pitch for practicality will always be less bombastic than Raphael’s. And who wants to name-blind CV’s when you could spearhead a diversity training program that turns everyone into the very best version of themselves? Who wants to implicate Shredder on tax evasion, when you could storm his lair, rough up Bebop and Rocksteady and save the day in one fell swoop?

Well, I don’t think that’s an option – it’s a dangerous illusion. There’s no silver bullet, no transformational 10x act, that will encourage your employees to be more collaborative, more innovative, more inclusive or agile. When you put your faith in initiatives that make that kind of claim, you give yourself a license to avoid the hard work. Which is methodical, relentless, persistent change.

I accept the need for balance. Master Splinter always said that the true power of the turtles came when they were together as one. But when it comes to behaviour and culture change, the inspiring leader (Leonardo), the reckless firebrand (Raphael) and the one who just wants to eat pizza (Michelangelo) are already well represented.

We need more Donatello.


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James Elfer