corporate culture | October 17, 2017

Radical Creativity Lives Here: Derek Thompson’s Atlantic Cover Story Offers A Rare Look Inside Google "X"

“X” is Google’s highly secretive moonshot factory, where designers, psychologists, scientists and technologists try to come up with radical solutions to the world’s biggest problems, detached (in theory) “from the vagaries of the free market.” Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson received a rare invitation to visit the factory, and it became this month’s cover story.  

“X is perhaps the only company on the planet where regular investigation into the absurd is encouraged, and even required,” says Thompson. Ideas are then carefully evaluated: which should be pursued, which abandoned—or put another way, which are hits and which are flops. On this, Thompson is the expert, author of the bestseller Hit Makers—a revelatory investigation into why and how ideas become popular.   


Here are five things we learned about radical creativity from Thompson’s unprecedented access to one of the few places in Silicon Valley that aims “to nurture each moonshot, from question, to discovery, to product—and, in so doing, write an operator’s manual for radical creativity.”


  1. 1. Radical creativity is about coming up with the right questions, not brainstorming solutions.

  2. “Moonshots don’t begin with brainstorming clever answers,” says Thompson. “They start with the hard work of finding the right questions.”

  1. 2. One of X’s tenets of radical creativity is #MonkeyFirst.

  2. “Astro Teller [leader of X] likes to recount an allegorical tale of a firm that has to get a monkey to stand on top of a 10-foot pedestal and recite passages from Shakespeare. ‘Where would you begin?’ he asks … many people would start with the pedestal. That’s the worst possible choice, Teller says. ‘You can always build the pedestal. All of the risk and the learning comes from the extremely hard work of first training the monkey.’” 

  1. 3. Radical creativity means a tremendous amount of failure.

  2. “At X, Teller and his deputies have had to build a unique emotional climate, where people are excited to take big risks despite the inevitability of, as Teller delicately puts it, ‘falling flat on their face.’”

  1. 4. Radical creativity needs a business model; a plan for contact with the real world.

  2. Using Nikola Tesla as an example: “He was one of the greatest inventors, but it’s a sad, sad story … he couldn’t commercialize anything, he could barely fund his own research. You’d want to be more like Edison … you’ve got to actually get your invention into the world; you’ve got to produce, make money doing it.”

  1. 5. When radical creativity isn’t valued, invention and innovation halts.

  2. “America’s withdrawal from moonshots started with the decline in federal investment in basic science. Allowing well-funded and diverse teams to try to solve big problems is what gave us the nuclear age, the transistor, the computer, and the internet. Today, the U.S. is neglecting to plant the seeds of this kind of ambitious research, while complaining about the harvest.”

To book Derek Thompson to speak on journalism, innovation, or The Future of Work (the subject of his previous Atlantic cover story) contact The Lavin Agency, his exclusive speakers bureau. 


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