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Getting to 10X Thinking

By John Kenny, EVP, group director of strategic planning, Draftfcb Chicago
You hear a lot about 10X Thinking at Google’s campus in Mountain View, CA.  “Our number of employees has grown 10X since our IPO,” or “at the time, traffic to our servers was growing 10X.” It’s a phrase that gets peppered into a lot of conversations whenever the tone is one of pride.
For Google, 10X Thinking is the ultimate goal. Not optional, but mandatory for survival.  It’s not enough to get a little bit better every day.  As hard as it is to constantly improve, little improvements lead only to incremental change. (And as a reminder of what happens to tech companies that deliver only incremental improvements, there is a statue of a dinosaur at the center of Google’s campus in Mountain View.
I was introduced to 10X Thinking at Google’s IPG Creative Summit on May 22, where leaders from IPG companies such as Deutch, RGA, McCann, TP and Draftfcb gathered to hear how Google and creative agencies can partner together to bring 10X Thinking to our mutual clients.  The concept was outlined by Obi Felton, Director of Getting Moonshots Ready for Contact with the Real World (yes, that’s her title).  She’s from Google X, Google’s “Lab of Wildest Dreams;” their “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” filled with “Peter Pans with PhDs” and “Venture Academics.”
What is 10X Thinking?  At Google X, it starts with the belief that “a small group of committed people can change the world.”  The group focuses on huge problems that affect billions of people and require radical solutions and breakthrough technology.  The process is something like, two-thirds “Yes, and” followed by one-third “Yes, but.”   Projects move from idea, to prototype, to project; then graduation, before moving on to commercial application.  Prototyping is constant and essential. But Google fears they don’t prototype enough.  Yet the whole process is extraordinarily quick.  Within three to six months a project will be okayed or killed. Never for financial reasons, but because it’s either still impossible (energy from fusion) or the solution is more straightforward than previously realized (as discovered about indoor maps, where apparently it’s “just” a software problem, no new hardware required).
Can Agencies Deliver 10X?
Woah. But I’m just a simple ad guy. Agencies make content and software, not hardware.  And the last time I checked, no agency has $50b in cash reserves to throw at problems.  Are agencies even equipped to deliver 10X Thinking? 
The realization that agencies can indeed deliver 10X Thinking came from, of all things, popcorn.  Diamond Foods, who owned the Pop Secret brand of popcorn, showed how 10X Thinking can be brought to any problem, no matter how small the client or category.
Pop Secret started with the realization that they were not in the popcorn business, but in the movie-watching business. That’s when their product was consumed and the perfect movie night was the problem their fans most focused on.   Pop Secret began working not to deliver a perfect campaign, but to develop a series of ideas to see how they could solve their fans’ goal of the perfect movie night.  The work resulted in a bunch of prototypes developed into projects that were launched to the public:A browser extension let fans highlight any movie title and identify where on the web that movie could be streamed.A partnership with movie review site “Rotten Tomatoes” allowed fans to identify which movie critics share their taste in movies.Another partnership, with online dating site OkCupid, helped singles connect through their love of the same movies.
Rather than seeing these prototypes as one-off campaigns, Pop Secret viewed them all as attempts to innovate around perfecting the movie night.  All were housed on the Pop Secret’s lab website, so fans could try out these new innovations. 
Pop Secret’s 10X Thinking moment hadn’t come until they asked themselves: What’s the biggest problem with popcorn and movie night? 
The answer came not from some digital native, but an old account guy who asked the simple question: “Could someone come up with something to help me stop burning my popcorn in the microwave, because the smell stinks up the house for the whole night?”
That question led to the Perfect Popcorn app, an iPhone app that listens to the pops coming from your microwave to identify the precise moment when your Pop Secret popcorn is ready. To promote the app, Pop Secret released an auto-tuned song taken from tweets by people who had just burnt their popcorn in the microwave.
Why is this 10X Thinking? Is it a problem that affects billions of people?  No, but the defining feature of Google’s 10X Thinking isn’t the size of the problems that they apply it to, but it’s the fact they apply 10X Thinking to ALL the problems they encounter.  From organizing food in their cafeterias so that people will be more likely to choose the healthiest foods, to coming up with a self-driving car, the key motivator isn’t the size of the problem, but rather that every category, no matter what its size, has problems that deserve 10X Thinking.
10X Thinking isn’t easy, but it’s not just for tech giants.  We live in a world where incremental progress is no longer a way to sustain yourself long term.  If agencies forget that simple fact, they won’t need to put statues of dinosaurs in their lobby — they’ll be the dinosaur.