Radical innovation

Dr Astro Teller speaking at a Virgin Unite gathering on Necker Island
Astro Teller, photo by Jack Brockway
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 31 August 2022

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr Astro Teller talk about the power of failure and radical innovation at a Virgin Unite gathering.

Astro oversees X, Alphabet's moonshot factory, which specialises in inventing and launching breakthrough technologies and businesses — some of which really struck a chord with me.

Waymo self driving cars in a field
X's sustainable agriculture moonshot, Project Mineral

X’s approach to work is fascinating – it creates radical solutions designed to help solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges and doesn’t even consider thinking small. X’s mission to generate ideas that could lead to 10x magnitude improvements.

Astro shared his core business beliefs with us and I was delighted that so many aligned with my own. According to Astro:

If you want to change the world at scale, you must use the profit motive, as well as purpose.

Whilst I believe there’s plenty of space to make brilliant, purposeful solutions without a primary profit focus, I also agree that the most successful philosophy driving good business decisions embeds profit, alongside the planet, people, and purpose.

Dr Astro Teller speaking at a Virgin Unite gathering on Necker Island
Astro Teller, photo by Jack Brockway

That philosophy birthed The B Team back in 2013. Jochen Zeitz and I co-founded The B Team, with Virgin Unite’s support to incubate it, to help shape a ‘Plan B’ for business. It’s now a global collective of business and civil society leaders, working to create new norms of corporate leadership.

At a time when bold, brave solutions are urgently needed, it’s places like X, and organisations like The B Team, that give me hope we can get on top of the challenges facing the world.

Jean Oelwang and Richard Branson speak on a panel discussion
Image from Virgin

Over the next five years The B Team will be focused on building an inclusive global economy – one that serves all of humanity, by prioritising protection of the planet, workplace equality and governance. For this, the most decisive decade for the future of humanity, this bold, human-focused, global approach is the only way we can succeed.

One of the great initiatives that came from a partnership between Virgin Unite and The B Team is 100% Human at Work – a movement committed to creating a better future of work for humanity. What repeatedly struck me about Astro’s way of doing business is that he was basically singing from the 100% Human hymn book.

A small, blue booklet from The B Team about their 100% Human at Work initiative. In white on the front cover it says '100% Human at Work Gathering'
The B Team - 100% Human at Work. Image from Victoria Dawe

The X hiring model has a bold focus on learning, which is something that both the 100% Human network and Virgin companies champion. We all believe in the power of – as Big Change put it - a growth mindset. For Astro, he’s looking for audacity and humility – the audacity to try new things and the humility to be open to the reality that your idea may not work. We all have a lot to learn from that approach.

I’ve long publicised my failures and believe that we must feel comfortable in failing. I echo Astro is his belief that most big ideas won’t take off - and that we need to be okay with that. We must get smart about proving why things don’t work and then move on. According to Astro, there is power in working passionately and power in pausing and looking dispassionately at results. We’re trained to do the opposite, so this is quite hard to do.

Richard Branson speaking at a Virgin Unite gathering
Jack Brockway

Astro concluded that to create workplaces that can foster radical innovation you need your boss to have “the right amount of crazy and unreasonable”. I’m still not quite sure why he immediately looked to me and winked.