What’s Better Than Being Smart?

Accountability Empathy Transformation


Key Point: The ability to shift perspective is better than being smart. That’s the view expressed by Astro Teller, the leader who runs Google’s moonshot business, X. Chris McQueen, another Googler and the guy who leads Google’s Innovation lab, heads many of Google’s transformation and ideation sessions out of the famous “Google Garage.” He deftly makes this “perception” point by telling a story he shared with a number of us fortunate enough to spend a day with him this past week. 

A friend of McQueen’s is a crazy gear head and wanted to share that enthusiasm with his newborn infant by immediately hanging a car themed mobile over the crib. Surely the little one would be excited to view these bright, shiny vehicles and quickly begin a shared paternal love for the automobile. Much to his friend’s chagrin, the baby just never seemed to show any interest in the colorful, beautiful mobile. One day, the dad bent down to make up the crib and happened to see what the mobile looked like from the baby’s perspective. He was shocked to observe that instead of ogling, cooing, inspiring cars, the toys looked like a bunch of intertwined, unattractive sticks. It was nothing like the view from the top of the crib, or even from the side. His friend realized that the mobile was essentially for him and not at all interesting from the baby’s point of view. Hmm.

This simple, yet impactful little story reminds us when we want to deliver something of meaning to others, we have to be sure that we are looking from the perspective of the receiver or user. Otherwise, the service or product we offer is more often about us than them. During his workshops, McQueen emphasizes the only real way to deeply understand and achieve this valued actionable viewpoint, is to connect the user and their needs through observation and data. Doing this well results in actionable insight from the users’ perspective. This is often easier said than done and usually requires iterative work, including fast prototyping and testing before we invest (regardless of how well intended or how strongly we believe in our interpretation).

While I’m sharing “McQueen Nuggets,” I thought I’d provide another represented in his San Francisco “pothole” story. Chris asked us how we would prioritize fixing ALL the potholes in San Francisco (or any other place for that matter). This is under the assumption that it is not practical, feasible or economical to fix all of them at once. The obvious thing is to fill in the big ones that could cause harm or damage to people and transport. However, the next logical place would be to repair the holes that experience the most traffic. This simple and helpful guide is a principle many organizations could benefit from: Map the journeys your most valuable customers take and fix every pothole where they frequently travel! 

Character Moves: 

  1. Remember that you can add to your IQ significantly by being a naive and open learner; continuously and consciously lifting and shifting your perception. See things from every angle other than just where you are standing. Pay extra attention to the view of others/users you really want to meaningfully serve. 
  1. Map the journey of these users, smooth over the potholes of their roads most travelled, and you will be a friction, fixing genius. It is focused attention and priority more than just throwing resources at problems. 
  1. Become a Googler in attitude and action… You and I too can think Google X: It’s simple, possible, and still hard. 

Googley in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: I think as Millennials, we thrive on user/customer generated feedback. We want to inquire about what “potholes” we can fix first. Thankfully, there’s always a great platform for this type of communication. But we also know the asphalt is always going to get torn up somehow, and need to be on the lookout. It’s a bumpy road out there, but if you learn how to navigate and adapt to the journey by asking those who frequent the commute, it’s a lot smoother.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis