Happy Monday Uplifting Crew,
This week's chapter excerpt is all about how to stretch yourself and your teams into a more ambitious space! I talk about how an April Fool's joke changed everything, and then later in the chapter why I've fired myself every two years, why working in the improbable space is so powerful, and how Google's modular phone Project Ara came to be.
This is an appropriate chapter for this week, as I've just reconnected with a CEO, mentor and friend who taught me the lessons from this chapter, and we've just kicked off a project together. I've also loved seeing examples of teams already using the Three I's method from this chapter to push the boundaries.
Chapter 4 - Stretch
I know the exact day when I realized the power of 10x thinking. It was March 21st, 2004. I was working on Hotmail at the time, where users would have 2 megabytes of free storage for their emails, and had to pay something like $49/year to have a massive 50 megabytes of storage if they needed more. Several weeks earlier, Google had done what it usually does on April Fool’s Day: announce ridiculous but slightly believable press releases to prank the world. In 2004 their prank announcement was something called Gmail: an email interface that was powered by a Google search interface and 1 gigabyte of free storage. That represented a 512x increase compared to Hotmail’s storage. Many of us on the Hotmail team, me included, laughed at how crazy the Gmail announcement was. There was just no way Google would get into communications software; and if they did, there is no way they could make any money by giving away that much free storage.
Well, as you can imagine, this time the joke was real. On March 21st, word got out that people were getting invitations to an actual beta of Gmail. I was totally blown away by the vision and ambition. Even though I love Microsoft for everything I learned and designed there, and I ended up staying for another 6 years, in that moment a quiet voice inside me said, “Someday you have to work at a place like Google.”
Case Study: Project Ara
Eight years later I got my wish. I had been leading design research globally at Motorola when Google acquired us. Google also brought on a new Vice President of innovation to see where they could push the possibilities in the hardware space.
Google hired Dr. Regina Dugan, who had previously led DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies and advanced research projects. DARPA's mission is to prevent and create strategic surprise. It was established in 1958 in response to the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, which surprised the US and marked the beginning of the space age. Since then, DARPA has been involved in numerous groundbreaking projects and innovations, including the development of the ARPANET (a precursor to the modern internet) and the Global Positioning System (GPS).
DARPA’s innovation model paired with Google’s ambitious vision seemed like the perfect combination, so when Regina asked if I’d be the first person from Motorola to join her team, I didn’t hesitate to give an enthusiastic, “Yes!” There was just one catch: she would fire me after 24 months. DARPA hires leads for a 2-year term to ensure that they are constantly pushing the boundaries and are more focused on technical innovations rather than career politics.
I realized that this was how I was already progressing my career, re-evaluating my impact every two years to see how I could have more impact. I had worked 8 years at Microsoft, but it was across four projects. And I had transformed Motorola’s practice of design research for the last two years and was ready for a new challenge.
Regina gives a powerful TED talk where she asks the question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”. The purpose of this question is to strip away the fear of failure, which holds us back from attempting ambitious things. This was the actual question that she posed to me in our first 1:1 meeting. It seems like an easy one to answer in the abstract, but when you know it will define the next two years of your work life, it’s a lot scarier!
The iPhone 4 had just come out, and I had recently watched Jony Ive talk about how the design team paid attention to every detail. They even designed a computer vision matching system on the assembly line that ensured the right pieces were assembled to eliminate any gaps on the product. I thought that Henry Ford, who had pioneered the moving assembly line 101 years earlier would have been so proud to see such advancements. The whole idea of the assembly line is to repeatably and precisely manufacture 1 design a million times.
I had also just come back from a weekend at something called Maker Faire in the San Francisco bay area, and the ethos was completely the opposite but equally exciting. Maker Faire is all about encouraging everyone to bring out their inner creativity, to share knowledge, and to make a million things only once. It struck me that while we could infinitely personalize our smartphones though a wide selection of software apps, the same was not true with hardware. While we could add cases or accessories onto our smartphones, we were pretty much stuck with the model we had bought.
So I answered Regina’s question of what I would do if I knew I couldn’t fail, and I answered, “I’d make a smartphone that was like Lego.” People could build the perfect phone just for them. If something broke you could simply swap it out. And from an environmental perspective there wouldn’t be so many phones thrown away that are perfectly fine except for one or two broken pieces.
Our first modular phone prototype.
She said, “Ok great, what’s the first thing you can do to prototype your idea?” The first thing we did was take a Droid Razr smartphone and add on an Arduino microcontroller, so designers and developers could now start accessing the smartphone and start creating new hardware ideas.
Regina then said, “What’s the next thing you can do to make this prototype real?”. She would continue to ask this type of question every week, knowing that I only had 104 weeks to bring this idea to life.