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Chandrayaan was our moonshot that failed, so what?

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on September 12, 2019 Published on September 12, 2019

Hard landings: Be it Amazon’s Alexa, reformulated Coke or Microsoft’s cloud services, success came after failed attempts   -  PTI

Crazy ideas are by definition seemingly impossible. But that’s what innovation is all about

India’s moonshot failed. We did not land on the dark side of the moon. A billion hearts were thumping in anticipation. India was going to land a robotic space craft near the South Pole of the moon. We were all ready to celebrate. There were children in schools designing rockets using plastic bottles. The world applauded the fuel-efficient path of Chandrayaan-2. We loved the attention and envy that it generated. We told the world that our mission was at a budget of $150 million. The world’s highest-grossing film of all time, Avengers: Endgame, had a wallet size of $356 million.

India woke up to discover that the mission had failed. There was disbelief. When the spacecraft was less than 2 km from its landing spot, the trajectory diverged from the planned path. Some speculated that the craft descended too fast. The ISRO chief, K Sivan, broke down and cried as Prime Minister Narendra Modi consoled him. The twitterati debated whether Sivan did the right thing by crying in public.

Moonshots are like that only

Moonshots are those crazy ideas that, by definition, are impossible. There is no clear path on how to make them happen. There is a much greater likelihood of the project failing spectacularly. When it succeeds, there is disbelief. People wonder if it really happened or was it just a figment of one’s imagination. The size of the dream is greater than the resources. It is precisely this friction between reality and possibility that is intoxicating.

Since 2010, Google has dedicated resources to moonshot projects, forward-thinking endeavours designed to solve the world’s biggest problems. Google’s parent company Alphabet has a division mysteriously called X that runs these moonshots. In 2010, a driver-less car was a moonshot project. In April 2017, Waymo started a limited trial of a self-driving taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona.

Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, India, has been working on an automated diabetic retinopathy screening since 2003. Life sciences company Verily (another moonshot project) and Google’s AI research division have been developing an artificially intelligent (AI) system that can diagnose diabetic retinopathy (DR), a disease that can cause permanent eye damage if left untreated. The clinical trials done in partnership with Aravind Eye Hospital are a step towards early detection of DR.

Google has had its share of failures. Google Video, launched in 2005, was a failure until they bought over YouTube in 2006. Their microblogging platform Jaiku was meant to compete with Twitter. Jaiku ran from 2007 until it was killed in 2012. NexusQ was Google’s streaming video player that was a failure. It morphed into Chromecast.

Trillion-dollar companies have failed often, so what?

Apple also turned out to be the first company to touch the trillion-dollar market cap despite so many failures. Apple recently killed AirPower, a wireless charging pad for charging iPhone, Apple Watch and the Airpods. In 2014, the videos of iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus that were getting bent out of shape were going viral. Apple Maps has been another gigantic failure. So what?

 

Microsoft, another company that has a trillion-dollar market cap, missed the mobile revolution altogether. They missed social media as an opportunity. Their operating system Windows ME was released soon after Windows 98. It crashed so often that it was nicknamed “Windows Mistaken Edition”. MSN watch, launched in 2004, let users check email, weather, news, etc. It was a colossal failure. Microsoft’s cloud services called Azure is today bigger than Google’s cloud service and second only to Amazon’s Web Services. Azure was a moonshot when it was a project codenamed Project Red Dog in October 2008. It was released in 2010, as “Windows Azure” before being renamed “Microsoft Azure” in 2014.

 

Amazon has had its share of high-profile failures. They recently killed the Dash Button that allowed the consumer to reorder a consumable by pressing a button-like device that was tiny enough to be carried around or placed on a refrigerator. Amazon Tap morphed into Alexa that sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices. Amazon entered into the hotel-booking business in April 2015 with Amazon Destinations. Six months later, the project was killed.

Innovation has a by-product. It is called failure.

The changing face of innovation

The model of innovation in the analogue world was different. The messy ideation and trials and failure were never public. Only the finished product was showcased to the world.

 

Coke was rapidly losing market share to Pepsi Cola in the eighties. The consumer seemed to prefer diet soft drinks and non-cola beverages. Blind tastings showed the preference for a sweeter taste. The Coca-Cola recipe was reformulated. Coke’s attempt at changing the formula flopped. New Coke has since then become a case study that cautions people not to tinker with something that is working well.

Organisations often try to take on stretch goals when they are going downhill. The leaders agree to change and innovate when their backs are pushed against the wall. Organisations try stretch goals when they are floundering or failing. Stretch goals are, paradoxically, most seductive for organisations that can least afford the risks associated with them.

So why don’t we try to innovate when we are successful? That is when organisations become arrogant and inward-looking. They close their eyes to the external world and believe that they are way ahead of their peers. They do not see the need to tinker. The examples of Google, Apple and Amazon tell us that the biggest and most successful companies today are the ones that are constantly trying new ideas. Innovation has to be part of everyday work and the culture of the organisation.

In a hyperconnected world, there are no secrets. Successes are posted for all to see. The rest of the world takes on the task of announcing all the failed dreams. Prototypes blow up in full view of TV cameras. Celebrity deaths have been announced on social media while they were still undergoing treatment. Chandrayaan’s failure is no exception. Some countries are happy that the exclusive club has turned away someone who was not born to privilege.

Moonshots teach us to be resilient

Dreams are fuelled by ambition. Irrational dreams change the world because they are irrational. Dreamers are irrational. They are driven to achieve what nobody believes to be possible. When we chase a dream that we have given a 100 per cent to, the disappointment is equally strong. Sivan cried because he wanted to make a billion Indians land on the moon. We have not got there, YET. Yes, Chandrayaan was a moonshot. It failed. So what? When our soldiers go to battle, they do not hold back because they may die. Neither will this nation of a billion dreamers.

The first world was unhappy when India became a nuclear power. Feed the starving and clothe the naked, we were told. The same voices can be heard again when we speak of our space mission. Space activity is a wealth generator. India wants to enter the multi-billion-dollar market for space products and services. We are dreamers. Dreamers are irrational. They will pick themselves up, dust themselves and run towards the next moon or moonshot, whichever comes first.

Abhijit Bhaduri is an author, coach and leadership advisor to organisations. He is the author of the bestseller “The Digital Tsunami”

Published on September 12, 2019
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