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Inside Alphabet's 'Moonshot Factory,' Killing Projects Is Celebrated

"Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart."


Alphabet’s X division, formerly known as Google X, is often perceived and marketed as a near-superhuman force, specializing in audacious projects called “moonshots.” But, in a recently released video from this year’s TED Conference, X’s “Captain of Moonshots” Astro Teller said that doesn’t mean the team is always right.

As Teller said in the video and a follow-up blog post, teams are encouraged to raise concerns about their projects’ ability to succeed, and are frequently rewarded for killing them off.“Discovering a major flaw in a project doesn’t always mean that it ends the project,” Teller said at TED. “Sometimes it actually gets us onto a more productive path.”

He cited the example of X’s self-driving car initiative, which didn’t always plan to develop a car with no steering wheel. Telling the car to do “almost all the driving” and then expecting the driver to take over in case of emergency “was a really bad plan,” Teller said, because those drivers weren’t paying attention as they normally would behind the wheel.

“Sometimes shifting your perspective is more powerful than being smart,” he said.

More than 100 potential projects were killed off in 2015, Teller noted in the blog post. When a team of 30 engineers decided to abandon a project after two years and instead license out their technology to another company, they were all given bonuses.

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