Shoot for the moon

They are expensive, risky and long-term programs with extraordinarily ambitious aims. A new book promises to reveal key leadership approaches for managing moonshots.

How do you manage a moonshot? Tamara Carleton and William Cockayne have undertaken to provide the necessary tools in their new book, Building Moonshots: 50+ Ways To Turn Radical Ideas Into Reality.

The term moonshot comes from the challenge laid down by President John F Kennedy in 1961 when he declared that the US would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Carleton and Cockayne define them as massive, extremely expensive, visionary, long-term programs to solve almost impossible problems, with world-changing results. Think of SpaceX’s colony on Mars, affordable nuclear fusion, finding a vaccine for Covid-19, and net zero.

The authors outline varied ideas currently being used to help manage moonshots. Some are thought-provoking: for example, the longer it will take to bring a revolutionary innovation to market, the fewer competitors you are likely to have. Some might be useful in other contexts: when planning, start by working backward, rather than forward, for the desired outcome. Others are jaw-droppingly elementary: if you want to motivate your team, it is a good idea to know everyone’s names. Who knew?

More broadly, the authors expose the costly, risky and long-term nature of these programs. Often, they are predicated on scientific or technological breakthroughs that have not occurred, but just might in the next 20 years. Strategy has to be emergent and highly flexible, making judicious long-term bets on promising breakthroughs, developing ecosystems and switching resources, partners and organizations as new technologies become mainstream.

What is missing from this toolbox of approaches is a serious discussion of how to decide which moonshots are worth backing and how to shape their governance. Moonshots are inherently wasteful of resources because they require investment in technologies that may never mature or may be superseded. For example, it is conceivable that electric vehicles could soon be replaced by hydrogen-fueled models – in which case, huge investments will have been wasted. But the path to innovation is inherently messy. Perhaps we should accept that apparent waste is not only necessary but part of the learning process.

Furthermore, the nature of moonshots is that they affect us all: shouldn’t we have a say? Some, such as net zero, are directed through international organizations and cooperation between governments; others, such as SpaceX,
are essentially the vision of one man. What sort of threshold should apply to determine whether an initiative counts as a moonshot? What governance and safeguards would be appropriate, taking into account the risk of stifling innovation? Building Moonshots largely ignores these questions.

In the 1970s, if you bought a used Ford Escort in the UK, you would probably buy a Haynes Manual – a practical handbook that would help you fix the vehicle when something went wrong. It was useful for understanding the engine, but no help for passing the driving test, and even less use for understanding transport policy. Building Moonshots is a sort of Haynes Manual, but it’s unclear who would actually read it – certainly not Elon Musk, one of the few people on Earth who is actually managing a moonshot. The rest of us may not be in Musk’s position yet our lives could well be affected by moonshots, so it makes sense to know something about how they work.

Maybe the most compelling reason to pick up this manual can be found by asking: what is your personal moonshot? Do you have some seemingly impossible ambition? This book may tease you into having a go – and give you some pointers about how to approach the task.

Piers Cain is a management consultant.