Astro Teller: When A Project Fails, Should The Workers Get A Bonus? Entrepreneur Astro Teller rewards colleagues when their ambitious projects fail. Teller says this helps people take risks so they can achieve their "moonshot" goals, like a balloon-powered internet.

Astro Teller: When A Project Fails, Should The Workers Get A Bonus?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

ASTRO TELLER: Right here?


TELLER: Sweet.

RAZ: So let's introduce a guy named Astro Teller.

Hello. Is that Astro Teller?

TELLER: It is.

RAZ: Which is kind of a perfect name for someone with Astro Teller's job.

TELLER: I'd like to think so.

RAZ: Astro works at a place known only as X.

TELLER: People ask a lot about secrecy and how much secrecy we have at X. And there are things that we're working on at X that we don't talk about publicly. And I think people misunderstand why we don't talk about them, and it's related to the issue of failure.

RAZ: Failure...

TELLER: One of my favorite topics.

RAZ: ...Is a big deal at X, but let's back up. X is run by Google, and when Astro first started working there, he sat down with Larry Page, one of the company's co-founders, and they tried to come up with a way to describe what they would do at X, what secret stuff they'd be working on.

TELLER: So I said, well, are we taking research? Is that like basically what we're doing? And he said no. Are we making business units? And he said not really. Are we an incubator? Sort of not really. So I was just trying these things out on him, and when I said are we taking moonshots? He said, that's what we're doing.


JOHN F KENNEDY: Why, some say, the moon?

RAZ: Here's Astro.


KENNEDY: Why choose this as our goal?

TELLER: 1962 at Rice University.

KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon.

TELLER: JFK told the country...

KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon.

TELLER: ...About a dream he had, a dream to put a person on the moon by the end of the decade.

KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon in this...

TELLER: No one knew if it was possible to do, but he made sure a plan was put in place to do it if it was possible. That's how great dreams are. Great dreams aren't just visions. They're visions coupled to strategies for making them real. At X, I have the incredible good fortune to work at a moonshot factory. We use the word moonshots to remind us to keep our visions big, to keep dreaming. And we use the word factory to remind ourselves that we want to have concrete visions, concrete plans to make them real.

But I have a secret for you. The moonshot factory is a messy place, but rather than avoid the mess, pretend it's not there. We've tried to make that our strength. We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we're wrong. That's it. That's the secret. Run at all the hardest parts of the problem first. Get excited and cheer. Hey, how are we going to kill our project today?

RAZ: This philosophy of chasing after failure is what Google is using to build its driverless car which started development in X, but so did Google Glass. Remember that? Not exactly a huge success. So what makes the difference between success and failure? And when failure is what you wind up with, how do you learn from it? How do you recover from it? Well, today on the show, stories and ideas about learning from failure and how to think differently about what happens when you fall flat on your face.


JON FORTT: It's one of the most hyped tech products that most people couldn't actually buy.

RAZ: So let's talk about Google Glass for a second.


FORTT: A wearable computer that takes photos and video, searches the web and responds to voice commands.

RAZ: Like we said, it was first developed at X.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: One of the most highly anticipated tech gadgets.

RAZ: It was supposed to be a huge thing.


FORTT: An estimated 10,000 people in a pilot program are already users.

RAZ: But the features...


JAY WAXENBERG: I'm excited to have the GPS like right in my eye. I'm excited to be able to pull up the images. Like, if I can Google something.

RAZ: These things were not enough to make it a success. And so Google quietly stopped production of the prototype and moved the project out of X.

TELLER: I think there were some things about what we did that were fantastic, and there are things that we did that I don't think we should repeat. And we can appreciate the parts of it that were good and make clear notes to ourselves about the parts of it that we wish that we would do differently next time.

RAZ: But failure is hard. It's not - it's not fun. I mean, this sounds really great and positive the way you're talking about it. But isn't it pretty hard to get people to be - you know, to become really excited about failing at something? I mean, how do you do that?

TELLER: There are a lot of different ways to do it. But here's an example - the first time I stood a team at X up on stage in front of everyone at X and said, this team has done more to further innovation at X by ending their project than any one of you sitting in your seats has done in the last quarter. There was, like, an uncomfortable silence. So then I say, and we're giving them all bonuses for having ended their project. All those people sitting in the seats are feeling even more like wait, what?

Then I say, hey, guys, take a vacation. And when you get back, the world is your oyster. Find some new project to jump into. And everyone thinks I've lost my mind. But the tenth time I did that, like, no one even thinks about it. They just get a standing ovation every time. I don't even have to say the speech anymore because it's part of the culture now.


TELLER: I want to show you a few of the projects that we've had to leave behind on the cutting room floor and also a few of the gems that at least so far have not only survived that process but have been accelerated by it. Last year, we killed a project in automated vertical farming. Vertical farming uses 10 times less water and a hundred times less land than conventional farming. But unfortunately, we couldn't get staple crops, like grains and rice, to grow this way. So we killed the project.

Here's another huge problem - we pay enormous costs in resources and environmental damage to ship goods worldwide. Economic development of landlocked countries is limited by lack of shipping infrastructure. The radical solution - a lighter-than-air variable buoyancy cargo ship. But it turned out that it was going to cost close to $200 million to design and build the first one.

Two-hundred-million dollars is just way too expensive because X is structured with these tight feedback loops of making mistakes and learning and new designs. We can't spend $200 million to get the first data point about whether we're on the right track or not. If there's an Achilles' heel in one of our projects, we want to know it now, up front, not way down the road. So we killed this project, too. Discovering a major flaw in a project doesn't always mean that it ends the project. Sometimes it actually gets us on to a more productive path.


RAZ: You know, it sounds like a lot of this is about how you look at it, right? Like, you know, you guys didn't fail, but you hit a snag that then forced you to shift your perspective.

TELLER: Yeah. I mean, I think - you're right, of course. It helps me that I've reframed what I think of as real failure. I think of real failure as the point at which you know what you're working on is the wrong thing to be working on or that you're working on it in the wrong way.

You can't call the work up to the moment where you figure it out that you're doing the wrong thing failing. That's called learning. And once you frame it that way, there's this moment where if you stop now, if you course correct now, you can be shame free. But if you keep going forward, the shame starts to build.

RAZ: How do you know when it's time to, like, pull the plug and say, you know what guys - this isn't going to work. Let's just, like, fail hard and move on.

TELLER: That's the really, really tough part, of course...

RAZ: Yeah.

TELLER: ...Because reasonable people often totally disagree...

RAZ: I bet.

TELLER: ...About when that point has been reached.

RAZ: They're like what are you doing to us, Astro?

TELLER: So there are times when we're trying something and it doesn't work, and we try a different way to solve the same problem or de-risk the technology. And that doesn't work also. And then we try a third way. Should we try a fourth way? That's the hard part. That's what we spend a decent amount of time arguing over.

There are frequently times where I will look at a project and be confident that it's going in the wrong direction. I will say gently that I think so. And then I will step away. First of all, I'm wrong a bunch of the time. And also, if we're expecting them to do these hard things, they need to own it. If it's done to them, it feels like a catastrophe. When they do it, it actually can be empowering.

RAZ: One of the most ambitious projects to come out of X in the last few years is a project called Loon, as in balloon. And it started with this idea...

TELLER: If you were to make what you could think of as a super-small, super-cheap satellite and tie it to a balloon and put it up into the stratosphere, you would have a couple huge benefits.

RAZ: First benefit - such a device would not work like a satellite much higher up in space. It wouldn't need a cell tower. It could send data directly to your phone.

TELLER: And the nice secondary effect, you can have an idea about what either the balloon would be like or this payload - the thing underneath it, which is like this little baby satellite - about how you could make it better, make a new version and have it up again in a week. The turnaround time for satellites is five to 10 years.

RAZ: Wow.

TELLER: Think about the learning loop of one week compared to five to 10 years.

RAZ: Astro hopes that X's Loon project could be a way to get internet access to millions of people all over the world who don't have it and get it to them through a network of balloons floating around the world. So for years now Astro and his team have thrown themselves at the challenges of this idea, learning really fast and expecting, even hoping to fail.


TELLER: So since 2012, the Loon team has prioritized the work that seems the most difficult and so the most likely to kill their project. And we're going to fly over places like Indonesia for real service testing this year. The only way to get people to work on big risky things, audacious ideas and have them run at all the hardest parts of the problem first is if you make that the path of least resistance for them.

We work hard at X to make it safe to fail. They get applause from their peers, hugs and high-fives from their manager, me in particular. They get promoted for it. We have bonused every single person on teams that ended their projects, from teams as small as two to teams of more than 30. We believe in dreams at The Moonshot Factory. But enthusiastic skepticism is not the enemy of boundless optimism. It's optimism's perfect partner. It unlocks the potential in every idea. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Astro Teller, check out his entire talk on X at More ideas about learning from failure in just a minute, I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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