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How to go after big, bold goals

(Photo of Peter Diamandis, courtesy of XPrize Foundation)

Peter Diamandis is nothing if not an optimist. His first book, Abundancewas subtitled "the future is better than you think." Where other people are concerned about water shortages, Diamandis sees a planet covered almost entirely with water that just needs the right technology to make it accessible. Where others worry about growing income inequality, he sees a day when technology will enable the "haves" and the "have nots" to become the "haves" and the "super haves."

Diamandis may be best known as CEO of the XPrize Foundation, which hosts global innovation competitions that hand out multi-million dollar rewards. But he's also helped found more than 15 technology companies, including one focused on human genomics and another that designs spacecraft that will mine asteroids for precious minerals. And he's the co-founder of Singularity University, a Silicon Valley-based institution that trains executives and future leaders to use technology to enact big change.

Diamandis talked with The Post about his advice for managing innovative teams, his newest book (Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth, and Impact the World, co-authored with Steven Kotler) and why we're headed toward an era of what he calls "technological socialism." The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. Why did you decide to write this book?

A. Abundance had done very well and it was, for me, a clear vision of where things could be. The question is: How do we get there? So, Bold was meant to be a guidebook, a how-to and an inspiration for entrepreneurs. It was also to help them realize that the world’s biggest problems, which I fundamentally believe are solvable, are also the world’s biggest business opportunities.

I was seeing a lot of entrepreneurs who were effectively working on the next photo-sharing app. I wanted to inspire them to go much bigger, bolder and more significant than that.

Q. What do the most disruptive, innovative leaders have in common?

A. First of all, they’re driven by passion and purpose. They’re not doing something just to make money. They have a fundamental discontent with something that exists or a fundamental vision of where we should be and a drive to get there.

The second is a willingness to take risks and experiment — to constantly try to deviate from the baseline of linear thinking, to start with a clean sheet of paper and try something very new.

The third is a willingness to shoot for [goals that are] 10 times bigger versus 10 percent bigger, with the realization that while the benefit will be 100-fold more, it’s typically not 100 times harder.

Q. You discuss at length the value of “skunk works,” the concept of isolating groups of people within larger organizations and giving them the freedom to fail. What’s the right management structure for projects like this? Should these teams be strongly led by a single person, or be very flat and democratic?

A. Number one is that the team is built around a passionate, visionary individual who loves what he or she is doing. That team is small. De facto, it’s reasonably flat.

But in addition, when you're forced to go 10 times bigger or 10 times faster or 10 times cheaper, what also matters is that instead of thinking out of the box, you’re thinking in a very small box. If you give a team all the money, all the people and all the time it needs, people get lazy. They also get very cautious and they’ll move more incrementally.

If you significantly constrain them and say you’ve got to do it with a very small team, in a short period of time, on a smaller budget, they have to throw out the traditional way of doing things because they can’t get there. It forces true innovation.

Q. What have you learned from your experience founding companies about leading creative, innovative people? What unique needs do they have, and how do you keep them motivated?

A. Even in an organization that’s doing something big and bold, there’s the mundane, day-to-day execution work of keeping it going. But people need to stay connected to the boldness, to the vision, and stay plugged in to the main vein of the dream. Whether that’s being at the rocket launch site or at the winning moment for an XPrize, they need to be reminded that they are working someplace that’s epic and exciting and visionary.

It’s really about tapping into that person’s heart and soul and spirit. It’s about capturing their shower time, having them dream and constantly think.

Q. Wait, did you say capturing their “shower time”? What does that mean?

A. It’s a euphemistic term I use. When you have an employee who’s innovative in your organization, what are they thinking about in the shower? If they’re working in an exciting place, they’re not thinking what they’re going to do over the weekend. They’re thinking: How do I solve that problem? It’s capturing their subconscious time.

Q. At the end of the book you make a very brief mention of how all this work by exponential entrepreneurs runs the risk of concentrating wealth and power and will bring about the need for “an entirely new breed of moral global leadership.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?

A. Over the next couple of decades we’re going to be redefining fundamental aspects of society. We’re living in a time where privacy, to a large degree, is dead. And we’re going from a world of what had historically been the "haves" and "have nots" to a world of "haves" and "super haves."

Another thing I believe is that we’re headed toward a world of near-perfect knowledge, where you’re going to be able to know anything you want, anytime you want, anywhere you want. Things that have historically been done in secret — whether it’s oppression of women or genocide or whatever the case is — are going to come into public view. A new type of ethics and morals is going to develop as the world is able to watch and pass judgement.

Q. But where will that moral leadership come from? Will the government need to step in to provide it? Or will it come from the people developing these technologies?

A. The notion that the government can regulate against some of these things is a fallacy. If the government regulates against use of drones or stem cells or artificial intelligence, all that means is that the work and the research leave the borders of that country and go someplace else.

I don’t think that leadership is going to come from government. I think it’s going to come from a hyper-connected populace that begins the debate, and where a new accepted set of morals and behaviors evolve. For example, one of my companies is called Human Longevity. We’ve built the world’s largest genomics sequencing. If everybody has their whole genome sequenced, will it become something that’s expected of you, to share your biomedical data publicly?

These norms change over time. What’s interesting to me is the timeframe is much shorter than I think most people realize. I think these things will be happening over the next couple of decades.

Q. If all of these big changes occur, particularly in the realm of artificial intelligence and robotics, it seems like the concept of careers and the workplace will fundamentally change. What effect do you think we’ll see, and how quickly?

A. About six months ago I held a meeting and invited a number of leaders from the White House, from Silicon Valley companies, even folks like Tony Robbins and folks out of academia. We had a conversation about where all this is going.

At one point during the conversation, one of the guys in the group said, ‘I really think it’s important with a group as eminent as this, that the people in the room write the president to warn him about the concerns here.’ Another guy stood up and said, ‘You know, the letter was sent. It was signed by a bunch of Nobel Laureates, and it went in 1964 to Lyndon B. Johnson.' It was, at the time, a letter about the dangers of automation.

The question is, is it different this time?

I think it was a Gallup poll that said 70 percent of Americans don’t enjoy their jobs. Most people work to put food on the table and get insurance. It’s not their purpose in life to stock boxes or take money at the toll. The question is whether artificial intelligence and robotics can deal with that drudgery and allow people to in fact do what they’re passionate about. Wouldn't that be a better world?

I coined the phrase that we hang toward an era of “technological socialism,” where technology is going to take care of us — it's going to educate us and provide our health care, effectively, at zero marginal cost. A teenager in Mumbai is going to have the same education and health care as a billionaire in Manhattan, as technology levels the playing field. Those are good things.

That’s the "haves." The "super haves" are going to be people who can have a condo on Mars or whatever it might be.

Q. What you’re describing sounds relentlessly positive. A lot of people would look at the same future of artificial intelligence and robotics and have a much more pessimistic view.

A. I was the closing speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative this year, and former president Bill Clinton interviewed me on stage. His opening question was, “Peter, why are you so positive? Don’t you read news?”

I said, for one, I try not to watch the news. And secondly, I look at the data. Our mindset is a function of what we see on a daily basis: the communities that we’re in, the people we hang out with, the news we watch, our purpose in life. Fundamentally our brains are wired to pay tenfold more attention to negative news than positive news. It had an evolutionary advantage.

Q. I’m guessing the book was wrapped up before the crash last year of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, the commercial follow-up to XPrize winner Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne. What was your reaction?

A. My reaction was the same as everybody's. First it was, ‘Oh my God, that’s awful.’ Second was, ‘I wonder if this is going to kill the company?’ Third reaction was, ‘What the hell happened?’

When you step back, what people don’t realize is that of course there are going to be accidents. There may be deaths. This is what a developmental period is all about. Every airplane that we fly on today, every car that we drive in, has a history of hundreds if not thousands of fatalities. And yet we have this expectation today that you should be able to develop a new vehicle with zero risk or zero fatalities. I think we’ll get there eventually, but it’s unreasonable to have that expectation.

Q. So it didn’t shake your confidence?

A. Not at all. I would be proud and confident to fly on the first commercial flight. Whenever that team says it’s ready to go, I’m ready to go.

Q. One final question: What’s the deal with the letter X? XPrize, Google X, SpaceX. I know it’s linked with the unknown, but why do you think so many names include it?

A. XPrize was something I came up with in 1993. It was a result of not knowing who was going to put up the prize money. The X was a variable to replace. Then X Games came out shortly thereafter, then SpaceX and Google X. I think in the tech world, which is filled with a lot of physicists and mathematicians, it’s a sexy letter.

Read also:

Book review: 'Bold' by Peter Diamandis

Are robots coming for your job?

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