- Google X, Alphabet’s “moonshot lab” uses the phrase “#MonkeyFirst” to describe how it tackles the hardest part of a project first.
- That’s because they want to know if a project is worth pursuing before they invest time and money into it.
- Astro Teller, “captain of moonshots” at X, says too few companies subscribe to this productivity process.
If you want to understand Google X’s work process, you have to start by imagining a monkey.
Specifically, a monkey on top of a 10-foot pedestal, reciting passages from Shakespeare.
Astro Teller, “captain of moonshots” at X, uses this image to illustrate a fundamental principle behind the workflow at Alphabet’s “moonshot lab.” Specifically, he asks listeners to consider: If they wanted to get that monkey on that pedestal reciting Shakespeare, where would they begin?
The right answer, according to Teller, is training the monkey. The wrong answer is building the pedestal. That’s because training the monkey is infinitely harder than building the pedestal — and at X, it’s imperative to do the hardest thing first.
A recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic reports that “#MonkeyFirst” is a saying at X (“yes, with the hashtag”).
Teller told Thompson: “You can always build the pedestal. All of the risk and the learning comes from the extremely hard work of first training the monkey.”
In a 2016 interview with The Wall Street Journal’s former deputy editor-in-chief Rebecca Blumenstein, Teller explained why #MonkeyFirst embodies the difference between X and other companies today:
“A lot of work, weirdly, goes into the pedestal early on at a lot of companies — sometimes even at X — because there’s so much pressure to get rewarded for having done a good job. ‘Hey, nice pedestal!'”
In a 2016 blog post, Teller made the metaphor even more relatable: “[A]t some point the boss is going to pop by and ask for a status update — and you want to be able to show off something other than a long list of reasons why teaching a monkey to talk is really, really hard.”
In that same blog post, Teller shared an example of how this concept played out at X.
The Foghorn team developed a way to turn seawater into carbon-neutral liquid fuel. Their “pedestal” was building the technology to generate the fuel. Their “monkey” was figuring out how to make their fuel cost competitive.
When they realised their monkey wasn’t going to materialise anytime soon, Foghorn decided to call it quits on the project, “to free up X resources for moonshots that were more likely to succeed in the next few years.”
Consider #MonkeyFirst an organisation-wide version of “eating the frog,” or tackling the hardest task on your to-do list first. (The phrase is based on a quotation from Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”)
In this case, eating the frog — or training the monkey — first isn’t only about tackling the difficult stuff before your energy and excitement runs out. It’s also about seeing if your project is viable — because if it isn’t, you’d better say so now.
As Teller acknowledges in the blog post, not every manager or company will appreciate hearing that your assignment is unfeasible. Hopefully, more top executives will adopt this mindset in the near future — it might cause short-term stress, but will likely maximise long-term productivity.
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