We often hear about Google's oddball "Moonshot" projects -- from using balloons to bring internet to isolated areas to developing self-driving cars -- but according to at least one of the company's former execs, Google's obsession with shooting for the stars actually reaches into even the most mundane aspects of its everyday business.

And setting aside some time to dream really, really big is a great practice for all businesses, no matter their size, he insists.

Only a lunatic (or a genius) would dream of that!

There are few things that suggest grandiose thinking less than the everyday problem of buffering. We have all been annoyed by that little spinning wheel you get when you try to load a video on a slow internet connection. Which is why some years ago, the leadership team at YouTube was trying to cut down on buffering times.

Hunter Walk, who is now a VC with an interesting blog, was an executive at the division at the time. He recently explained in a post what happened when his group told Google co-founder Larry Page that they had set themselves the sensible-sounding target of cutting buffering times by 10 percent that quarter.

Larry looked up from the paper we'd given him.

"You should have zero buffering," the Google co-founder suggested.

As we detailed why of course that would be impossible because of all the things we can't control for and the desire to manage our own bandwidth costs, I saw a familiar look settle on Larry's face. Half-impish (as in "oooh, you really want to go down this rabbit hole with me") and half-incredulous (as in "Each day I awake with my mind wiped of the fact most people aren't as smart as I am and then progressively discover during the course of my meetings that you're all idiots").

"You should come back with a plan for zero buffering." End of meeting.

Of course, Google will never be able to stop some small town kid with a sluggish internet connection from trying to load all seventeen of his favorite music videos all at once, so eliminating buffering is a pipe dream. But as Walk and his team discovered when they tried to fulfill Page's outlandish request, just because a goal is impossible doesn't mean it's not also a useful spur to creative thinking.

"If you really wanted to try and get to a 10x improvement, what could we do?" the team started to ponder. How about "a totally private, worldwide high-speed internet with locally cached video and free state-of-the-art PCs for every end user"? Nope, that's probably not a practical idea.

Or maybe "a quick transition animation which played when you pressed the Play button that seemed to be a UX affordance but actually allowed us to start caching the video locally so we could tolerate connectivity interruptions in the post-play experience"? That might be more doable.

These were only a few of dozens of ideas the engineers started to kick around. Of course, their efforts never did result in a worldwide eradication of buffering, but they did lead to a transformation of both the team's goals -- they were far more audacious -- and its plans -- they were far more creative.

10X not 10%

All of which is a fascinating peek into the incredible mind of Larry Page. But what does this have to do with businesses that are more worried about keeping the lights on then shooting for the moon? According to Walk, just about any business can benefit from applying the simple principle behind Page's approach: ask what would you have to do differently if you were trying to improve by ten times instead of by ten percent.

"When I talk with any startup - Google scale or not - my easiest recommendation in brainstorming and goal-setting is to not get caught up in just local optimizations, not to stay exclusively in the land of reasonable, but devote some time to 10x Impact conversations," Walk concludes.

Have you devoted any time to considering how you could improve your business by an order of magnitude rather than a few percentage points? What do you think would happen if you did?

Published on: Mar 14, 2017