Want to Create an Innovative Company? Pursue Bold, Audacious, Hairy Goals

February 1, 2017 Keith MacKenzie

Moon on the horizon.

You’re the CEO of a large innovative company specializing in providing infrastructure and administration services to a large population. One of your departments is focused on high-technology research and development; after all, you want to be one step ahead in technologies for roads, transportation, architecture, and all that stuff. Marketing transformation? That’s the last thing on your mind.

Then one day, you get a text message:

Joe, did you see this? http://money.cnn.com/2017/01/24/roadstarx-announces-audacious-goal/

Puzzled, you click the link. After reading the first few paragraphs, your jaw drops. You send out an email to everyone on the board: “URGENT: meet me in the boardroom in 20 minutes.”

As it happens, RoadStarX, your competitor in the high-technology transit space, has announced bold new plans to build a superhighway to the moon. And god willing, they will do it by 2025.

It’s a ridiculous idea, of course. But the stage has been set. The bar has, in effect, been raised. As Skyword’s president would say, a big, bold, audacious, hairy goal has been declared.

All eyes are on you in the boardroom. So, what do you do, Mr. CEO?

The Fuel in the Innovative Company’s Tank

My father used to joke that Karl Marx never would have come up with his ideas about capitalism and communism if he had a farm of chickens in his backyard. The point was that if he witnessed nature in action—in the chickens’ case, the pecking order—he would have decided that all this communism stuff was just silly ideology and nothing more.

At the risk of oversimplification, one thing that Marx did touch on in his work was that a capitalist society fosters innovation, more or less. Where necessity is the mother of invention, competition—the healthy kind, anyway—encourages innovation. When one company, in this case RoadStarX, steps up and talks about superhighways to the moon, they are raising the bar for others to follow suit. Others—such as your own innovative company—take notice, and must take action.

Does it matter whether or not you can do it? No, it doesn’t. It only matters that you’re stepping up to the game and then putting the resources in place to make it a reality. Virgin mogul Richard Branson is a noted advocate of this thinking: “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes—then learn how to do it later!”

Audacious Goals Can Spark a Marketing Transformation

That superhighway-to-the-moon scenario is based on a true story. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was surging ahead in the space race, being the first to launch an artificial satellite into orbit in the form of Sputnik 1 in 1957, and launching the first-ever living being (from Earth, at least) into space later that year.

Then, in 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first human being to actually go into space. Imagine the noise and commotion that went on at NASA­—beautifully reenacted in the Oscar-winning movie, The Right Stuff—and how the United States ought to respond to this. There was a lot at stake: propaganda, bragging rights, national pride, setting the course of history, money, all that stuff. What would be the next logical step to take?

All this fell onto the plate of a young man who had just been hired as his country’s “CEO”: none other than John F. Kennedy. The result: JFK delivered his now-famous speech about putting a man on the moon. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

And then:

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

Here is the catch: there was no actual plan on how they were going to do it. True to the spirit of Branson’s quote, JFK and his friends made the commitment, knowing full and well that they had no choice, and that space agency administrator James Webb had no idea how they were going to go about it.

Flickr credit: thesmuggler- Night of the Swallow

The point? The brash, bold commitment to a great feat that had never before been done. The message is delivered. A powerful marketing movement is made. Of course, we all know the result: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and all that stuff.

Running to the Top

Nowadays, corporations and for-profits rather than presidents and governments are declaring bold, audacious, hairy goals. In December 2016, Nike stunned the running world by announcing that it would pursue the seemingly impossible two-hour marathon. Currently, the world-record marathon title is held by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya at 2:02:57 in Berlin in 2014. As the record has declined steadily over the past several decades, discussion around a two-hour marathon became inevitable.

True to its “Just Do It” spirit, Nike enlisted three top-tiered marathon runners and a research team in a bold quest to break the two-hour barrier with an attempt in 2017. It called the initiative Breaking2. As it states on the website: “After years of extensive research and development, Breaking2 will debut a system of groundbreaking innovation that has the potential to elevate every runner.”

Just days later, Adidas stood up and said: “Hey, we’ve been working on this for the last two years!” They upped the bar a little bit; where Nike didn’t outright specify what course they’d do their two-hour marathon attempt on, Adidas clarified that their athletes’ attempt would take place on a certified course—in other words, it would be a real world record. Oh, and the last four world-record holders were Adidas athletes.

Meanwhile, a website popped up, talking about extensive research into data management and bioinformatics, nutrition, bioenergetics, biomechanics and modelling behind the two-hour mission. “Intelligent training” is the apparent real benefit, and “linking the very latest genetic technologies to training aids such as accelerometry, GPS and heart rate monitoring will also need to be developed.” This project is the brainchild of Yannis Pitsiladis, who is looking for a $30 million commitment to further the science behind running, even though he admits knowing nothing about the actual science of training—he’s just excited about what we can learn.

Roger Bannister, the four-minute-mile guy, alluded to the two-hour marathon as a potential modern equivalent of that once-elusive four-minute mile. But his later commentary is more telling: “It’s part of man’s incessant search for some niche that will, for a while, ensure him a certain degree of permanence or fame.” Not a lot of talk about profit here—simply, a marketing transformation is taking place for Nike in furthering its reputation as an innovative company.

Flickr credit: Matt Buck

Brad Wilkins, a director in the Nike Sport Research Lab further attests to the motive: “We know that we need to break the two-hour marathon. That’s a defined outcome…So now let’s take a step back. What do we need to understand scientifically? What are the problems that we need to solve?” Set the goal, and figure out how later. Sounds a lot like Branson.

This goal can be linked somewhat to JFK’s speech with running writer Ed Caesar’s description of the two-hour marathon as a “moonshot marathon.”

And now, to tee up the next section, Caesar reminds us that Nike called the two-hour initiative its own “Mission to Mars.”

To Mars and Beyond

In September 2016, the self-proclaimed scientific soothsayer Elon Musk (my description, not his) announced SpaceX’s bold plans at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico to colonize Mars. Starting in 2018, SpaceX plans to bolster the red planet with the necessary infrastructure and technology to enable human habitation at some point in the next 40-100 years. The end—well, beginning—result? A civilization of millions.

Bold? Crazy? Ruthless? Dangerous? Probably all of the above. But Musk is committed to this mission, to “become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.” And to echo JFK, Musk adds: “This is a huge amount of risk, will cost a lot, and there’s a good chance we won’t succeed…But we’re going to try and do our best.”

Musk went on to imply that this wasn’t just about making money: “I’ve gotta make sure if something goes wrong on the flight and I die, there’s a good succession plan and the mission of the company continues and doesn’t get taken over by investors who just want to maximize profit and not go to Mars. That’s my biggest fear.”

Nevertheless, the response was swift. Some slammed Musk for announcing lofty goals without properly following through—including astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who criticized Musk for a lack of budget considerations: “One, it is very expensive,” Tyson said. “Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first.”

Others commended Musk for his lofty visions, pointing to his commitment to making it happen in spite of the challenges that may lay ahead. For instance, writer and engineer Dr. Robert Zubrin—who wrote a book titled The Case for Marssaid: “Elon Musk is not looking to use problems as excuses. He’s looking to knock problems out of the way. And it’s that attitude that’s going to take him to Mars.”

Flickr credit: Heisenberg Media

In fact, SpaceX’s marketing transformation had already taken place within the organization. One SpaceX employee said: “[Musk] subscribes to the model where you want to fail early and fail often, get the gremlins out of the system, and get to the final product, the safest, most reliable product, as soon as possible.” Another, former, employee clarified the environment in which SpaceX operates: “I would say the culture of SpaceX is a kind of ‘do the impossible; if it isn’t possible, you’ll find out.'”

Not even a week after Musk’s Mars announcement, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg announced his firm’s own bold, audacious, hairy goal: “I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.” Boeing, of course, has the luxury of NASA funding whereas SpaceX’s money situation is purely a private one, but the stage is set now: one way or another, we may actually see some kind of exploration—if not colonization—of Mars in the not-too-distant future.

And the most important point? Musk himself has no qualms about Boeing potentially beating SpaceX to the punch in the final frontier’s pecking order:

I think it’s actually much better for the world if there are multiple companies or organizations building these interplanetary spacecraft. You know, the more the better. Anything, I think, that improves the probability of the future is good. And so multiple companies doing it, I think, would be great. So I wanted to come describe the architecture actually in the hopes that this would encourage companies and organizations around the world to perhaps do something like this.

That’s the ultimate marketing transformation for a truly motivated innovative company: emphasizing the greater good for all humankind. That’s a powerful message that not only gets your name in the papers, but also resonates with potential customers because of the sincerity and excitement behind it. You’re not in it to win it, nor are you in it for profit; you’re in it because it’s awesome.

What Can Go Wrong?

Setting the bar high might result in some problems. In the running space in 1997, 200-meter hero sprinter Michael Johnson of the US and 100-meter dynamo dasher Donovan Bailey of Canada—both of whom were gold-medal record setters in their respective distances at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics—found themselves going head-to-head in a 150-meter showdown designed to put to rest the debate over the true world’s fastest man. Sponsored by a private enterprise, the event became somewhat of a fiasco when Johnson pulled back mid-race with an injury as Bailey coasted to the finish line.

The likes of this sort of race may never be seen again, due to the overt promotion of competition, bad blood between the two runners, and the apparent ambivalence and even apathy of the public. It was also a very costly, poorly organized affair operated by an inexperienced group, and was nearly scuttled at the last minute were it not for a $1-million injection by a local businessman. Evidently, the motive wasn’t a very sincere one.

Meanwhile, just weeks before Musk’s Mars announcement, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploded—not the first time, either—on the launchpad during a test, obliterating both the rocket and its $110-million cargo which included a commercial satellite that Facebook had planned to use to expand Internet service throughout some regions on the African continent. Some accused Musk of being too hasty; a more measured schedule may have avoided such an explosion.

But as we now know, Musk stuck to his guns and carried on with his sights squarely set on his object of desire: Mars. As the aptly named New Space Global CEO Dick Rocket said: “If anyone on this planet can recover from this, it’s Elon Musk.”

Today, few—if any—of us have heard of the Magellan Entertainment Group, the guys who organized the 150-meter run. SpaceX, on the other hand, remains in headlines even after the Falcon 9 explosion.

The big difference between the two incidents? Declaring a big, audacious, hairy goal is good and well, but only if your specified object of desire is inclusive, progressive, synergistic, and mostly, sincere. If you’re simply looking to beat down the other guy, your mission may come across as petty and small-minded.

A Collaboration of Capital

Which brings us back to Marx and his analysis of capitalism. In that discussion, he warned that the beneficiaries of the innovations in capitalism would only be a select few rather than the masses at large, and ultimately reach stagnation. Not to go down the rabbit hole about Marx, because we can analyze this one all night; rather, let’s instead shed light on the healthy competition and benefits of the examples above: instead of talking about money and profits, Musk has a vision of furthering human potential to multi-planetary status; Nike talked about challenging “the perception of what is possible in sport” and gaining “incredible athlete insight”; and JFK himself talked about the “progress of all people” in his moon speech. That all-inclusive spirit is a powerful one.

Final plot twist: unbeknownst to many at the time, JFK had even proposed a collaboration between the US and Soviet Union in the moon mission. It never happened, of course, and there were questions about the real motivation behind such a collaboration (in short: the US was running into money troubles), but the point was made. These great rivals were willing to work together to make it happen. Whether you’re building a collaborative dream team or simply inspired by a little healthy competition, the end result can be fantastic.

Think Big or Go Home

Now, back to the boardroom. After discussing—and sometimes arguing—for a few moments, you come to the conclusion that the only real option is to try and beat RoadStarX at their own game. After all, it’s in your best interests as a company to not only stay afloat in the status quo, but to surpass all expectations in the eyes of both the public and your own investors. People love big thinkers—it’s no accident why the likes of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson have such an adoring following—and if you don’t position yourself and your organization as the “big thinker” type, you’re going to fall behind. Set your bar high, and make it clear that you’re interested in furthering progress. Do it sincerely and powerfully, and the response will be positive.

If you’re worried about failing, don’t. As Nike says on their Breaking2 website: “The only real failure would be to not attempt such an audacious goal.”

So, your press release should contain two simple words, and they will be bold, audacious, hairy words: “Challenge Accepted.”

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