At Google’s X division, the company’s “moonshot factory,” the mantra is “#MonkeyFirst.” The idea is that if you want to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you’d better start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal, because training the monkey is the hard part. Anyone can build a pedestal.
The problem is that most people start with the pedestal, because it’s what they know and by building it, they can show early progress against a timeline. Unfortunately, building a pedestal gets you nowhere. Unless you can actually train the monkey, working on the pedestal is wasted effort.
The truth is that most places are designed to produce pedestals and not to train monkeys. They work within existing frameworks and hone operations to improve performance against established metrics. That works great as long as people want pedestals, but unless you learn how to do something fundamentally new, you’re bound to be disrupted eventually.
Anatomy Of A Paradigm
The use of the term paradigm shift has become so common that we scarcely stop to think about where it came from. When Thomas Kuhn first introduced the concept in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he described not just an event, but a process that he noticed had pervaded the history of science.
It starts with an established model, the kind we learn in school or during initial training for a career. Models become established because they are effective and the more proficient we become at applying a good model the better we perform. We then rise through the ranks and become successful.
Yet no model is perfect and eventually anomalies show up. Initially, these are regarded as “special cases” and are worked around. However, as the number of special cases proliferate, the model becomes increasingly untenable and a crisis ensues. At this point, a fundamental change in assumptions has to take place if things are to move forward.
However, as Kuhn noted, the shift in thinking almost never goes smoothly, but “is generally preceded by a period of professional insecurity.” Most experts cling to the old model, because that’s what they made them successful in the first place and they are often hostile to fundamental changes. That’s why it often takes a newcomer to create a revolution.
One way some organizations are able to break free of existing paradigms is to regularly pursue grand challenges, which change fundamental assumptions of what’s possible. These are not “bet the company” initiatives, but slow sustained efforts that take years or even decades to complete, but have massive payoffs if successful.
A company that has a long heritage of tackling grand challenges is IBM. In recent decades, it pursued grand challenges such as the Deep Blue project which defeated world champion Garry Kasparov at chess and the Blue Gene project which created a new class of “massively parallel” supercomputers. The most recent was the Jeopardy grand challenge which led to the development of its current Watson business.
None of these, it should be stressed, had clear commercial applications at first. In a sense, they were exercises in training monkeys without even thinking of what the pedestal would look like. Other programs, such as the Moonshots initiative at MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Grand Challenges program at 100kin10, an education nonprofit, take a similar approach.
Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s Chief Innovation Officer, describes his company’s grand challenges as “asymmetric efforts” because failure is not a material risk, but success will have a monumental impact. “The commercial value comes in applying those new possibilities to business problems,” he says.
Sometimes, fundamental change comes not through technological advancement, but rapid economic shifts. When a particular market or industry collapses, prices fall, the fundamentals of business are transformed and new things become possible.
That’s what we’re seeing today in retail. The function of a physical store is no longer primarily to drive transactions — customers can make a purchase anywhere today — but to do things that can’t be done online, like service customers face-to-face, solve problems and up-sell. Many retailers have failed to adapt and hundreds of stores are closing.
At first glance, this looks like a disaster, but it also opens up opportunities. There are now massive amounts of great commercial space available at greatly diminished rents and more flexible conditions, which has led to tons of experimentation. Mall atriums are becoming community spaces, old stores are being transformed into medical centers and art centers. Many retail brands are dying, but retail space itself is being rapidly reinvented.
In their 2005 book, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne popularized the notion of a Blue Ocean Strategy, which focuses on new markets, rather than fighting it out in a “red ocean” filled with rabid competition. As MIT Professor David Robertson points out, however, the current retail environment is neither a red or blue ocean, but more like a dead sea, which kills off existing life but provides a new ecosystem in which different organisms can thrive.
The Power Of Asking Why
The idea of a monkey reciting Shakespeare is, of course, ridiculous. Yet it is often extreme exaggeration that points us to a greater truth. The forces of the status quo — which include our brain chemistry, our aversion to loss and our social and professional networks — make it difficult to change and adapt. That’s why we often need a shock to shake us from our complacency.
Talia Milgrom-Elcott of 100Kin10 points out that we have to change the way we approach problems. “You have to keep asking ‘why?’ Keep asking why and you start to see connections that lead to root causes that have enormous leverage and that’s where you need to focus your efforts,” she says.
And that’s why taking a #MonkeyFirst approach is so important. Tackling the hardest problems first forces us to ask better questions and those questions can lead to vastly different approaches. Some of these will be blind alleys that lead to nowhere, but others will be game changers and permanently shift our ability to compete.
In researching my book Mapping Innovation, I found that the organizations who are best able to innovate consistently over a long period of time those that were constantly asking new questions and exploring new problems. It’s not so much the direction they set out upon, but the search itself, which led them to discover new heights.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com