Astro Teller: Celebrating Failure Fuels Moonshots [Entire Talk] | Summary and Q&A

April 26, 2016
Stanford eCorner
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Astro Teller: Celebrating Failure Fuels Moonshots [Entire Talk]

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In this video, the speaker discusses the importance of audacious goals and systematizing innovation. He shares examples of how X, a subsidiary of Alphabet, encourages learning from failures and creating a culture that aligns with the values and goals of the organization.

Questions & Answers

Q: What happened during the audacious goals award ceremony at X?

During the ceremony, three different teams merited the trophy, which hadn't been awarded in a year. The star chamber had to decide which team deserved the trophy and awarded it at the end of the all hands. However, the person who accepted the award felt they hadn't been audacious enough and handed it back.

Q: What excites the speaker the most?

The speaker is most excited about trying to systematize innovation rather than specific projects like self-driving cars or contact lenses. He wants to bridge the gap between what is expected and what is actually done by creating cultural norms that align with desired actions.

Q: How does X encourage audacious goals?

X encourages audacious goals by allowing each team to set their own goals, without haggling or negotiation. The goals should be challenging enough that they have a 10% chance of success but not so impossible that they aren't worth attempting. The team holds themselves accountable and presents their progress every quarter.

Q: How does X promote a culture of learning from failure?

X promotes a culture of learning by rewarding teams that end their projects. When a project is ended, the team is celebrated for their effort and given bonuses. This creates an environment where failure is seen as a learning opportunity rather than a negative outcome.

Q: How does X encourage failing fast?

X encourages failing fast by creating social norms and mechanisms that support learning from failure. They have a pre-mortem process where teams discuss potential failures before they happen. They also prioritize learning over traditional success metrics and celebrate efforts even if they don't achieve the desired outcomes.

Q: What is the role of the rapid eval team and the foundry at X?

The rapid eval team takes ideas from various sources and aims to quickly determine if they are viable or not. They focus on technical de-risking and building prototypes. If an idea passes this stage, it moves to the foundry, where more focus is placed on market viability and impact. However, most projects are still expected to be killed at the foundry stage.

Q: What are the potential failure modes for X as part of a larger entity like Alphabet?

One potential failure mode is being too tightly coupled to the larger organization's needs and constraints. This can lead to being pulled in different directions and losing focus on audacious goals. Another potential failure mode is not having the right time horizon. Short-term thinking may not align with X's focus on long-term innovation.

Q: How does X handle ideas that don't score evenly on pushing boundaries and market reception?

The speaker explains that the focus is on learning and innovation, so ideas that push boundaries but do not have immediate market viability are still valuable. They prioritize the potential for learning and progress rather than trying to predict success or market reception in a specific timeframe.

Q: Can you give an example of an impressive proposal that came to X?

The speaker emphasizes that he doesn't judge proposals based on impressiveness or novelty. However, he shares examples such as harnessing energy from avalanches or using Earth's magnetic flux to generate electricity. These ideas demonstrate the creativity and potential for innovative solutions.

Q: What is the cost of false positives and false negatives at X?

The speaker believes that false positives, thinking something is a great idea when it's not, are a much higher cost than false negatives, thinking something is not a great idea when it is. X focuses on avoiding false positives as the cost of investing time and resources in the wrong idea is high. There is no shortage of problems to solve, so false negatives have a relatively low cost.

Q: How does X handle concerns raised in pre-mortems with multiple people in agreement?

X takes concerns raised in pre-mortems seriously and investigates them further. Depending on the nature of the concern, they may involve specific individuals or teams responsible for those areas. It is important to address the concern in a meaningful way and follow up with the appropriate actions.


X promotes a culture of audacious goals, learning from failure, and systematizing innovation. They encourage teams to set their own goals without negotiation, celebrate efforts even if they fail, and prioritize learning over traditional success metrics. X also values creativity and pushes for out-of-the-box thinking. The company aims to address potential failure modes by avoiding excessive coupling to the larger organization and considering the appropriate time horizons. False positives are seen as a higher cost than false negatives, and X focuses on continuous learning, innovation, and problem-solving.

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