Moonshot innovations: Wishful Thinking or Business-As-Usual?

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Anne-Laure Mention
João José Pinto Ferreira
Marko Torkkeli


‘Our mind-set will be to avoid the moonshot’ said Boeing CEO James McNerney at a Wall Street analysts meeting in Seattle nearly 5 years ago (see Gates, 2014). The ambitious, exploratory and risky endeavour dubbed as moonshot project of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner had sunk billions of dollars in an industry where end-users demanded more comfort and convenience for less cost. According to McNerney, moonshots do not work in a price-sensitive environment. It is argued that they also tend to take the focus away from more immediate value capture opportunities as seen through Google’s loss on its core Cloud Platform to Amazon Web Services (AWS). Google’s parent company Alphabet which oversees Google X (a semi-secret moonshot project lab) more recently reported that it had incurred a US$1.3billion in operating loss on moonshot projects with a sizeable increase in compensation of employees and executives working on these projects (Alphabet, 2018). Notably, none of the Google X lab spin-outs (e.g. Loon – a balloon-based internet project, Waymo – self-driving car project, Wing – drone delivery project) have been identified as commercially viable. Despite the uncertainties and failures, the focus on moonshot innovations continues to proliferate in academia (Kaur, Kaur and Singh, 2016; Strong and Lynch, 2018) and practice (Martinez, 2018). Yourden (1997) even wrote an interesting book on perseverance and tenacity to keep going even after failed projects. Proponents of moonshot thinking have claimed that it can help solve society’s biggest challenges (e.g. cure cancer, see Kovarik, 2018) with some suggesting to encourage such thinking by paying failure bonuses (Figueroa, 2018). Yet others remain sceptical, positing that moonshot is ‘awesome and pointless’ (Haigh, 2019, p.4). A proverbial question, thus, emerges: are moonshot innovations simply wishful thinking or can they be part of business-as-usual? In part, the answer may be two-fold – 1) understanding the value of moonshot thinking, and 2) understanding moonshot challenges.  (...)

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