Q&A with Visionary Peter Diamandis: Why Agility and Experimentation Are Key to Corporate Success

Speaking before a packed audience at Workday Rising last week, Dr. Peter Diamandis made the case that as a human race, we’ve never been better off. The rapid progression of science and technology has had an enormous impact on people and industries across the world, and this pace of change will continue to accelerate at an exponential rate.

Diamandis brings an incredible pedigree to this perspective. He co-founded a genomics company focused on extending the healthy human lifespan, and a benefit corporation that studies exponentially growing technologies. He’s also co-founded three companies in the field of commercial space, and the XPRIZE Foundation, best known for a $10 million prize it awarded in a private spaceflight competition. In 2014, Fortune Magazine named him one of “The World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.”

We wanted to understand more about how this true visionary and innovator thinks about the future—and how businesses should be thinking about it, too. Read our Q&A with Diamandis, our opening keynote guest speaker at this year’s Workday Rising.

What will be among the greatest breakthroughs in science and technology in the next 10 years?

It’s difficult to answer, because there will be so many. Quantum computing is going to be revolutionary in the next couple of years. We’re going to see stem cell biology extending the human lifespan. Artificial intelligence will become predominant in every part of our lives, embedded in every device. We’re going to see a world of eight billion people connected at high speeds transforming global economics. Gene editing will transform how we’ll have our kids and potentially lead to the end of a lot of diseases that plague us today.

These kinds of changes are hard for us to wrap our heads around as a species. We evolved in an environment that was local and linear—distances and changes were at a human scale. Yet as we know with Moore’s Law, technologies are exponential, with each successive generation doubling the one that came before it. That’s why we’ll see more progress in the next 10 years than in the last century. And it’s not any one breakthrough, it’s the convergence of many things that are coming together and reinventing business models.

“What kills companies is fear of experimentation and fear of failure. If you’re not trying 100 ideas or even 1,000 ideas, you’ll get stuck.”

How can existing companies join this disruption, rather than be victims of it?

It’s the realization that every company’s core products eventually go to zero. Look at MS-DOS—it basically went away. You have to constantly reinvent yourself, and the challenge of reinventing within a company is very difficult. Every company mounts immune reactions to real, dramatic change. So what’s required is to create an ecosystem where you’re investing in adjacencies outside your company’s core products, or you set up and back adjacent entrepreneurial adventures outside your company. Even Apple didn’t disrupt its core products when Steve Jobs started the Macintosh project. He put his A team in a building off campus and flew a pirate flag over it. Apple later went into the phone, music, and apps business. Amazon also went into adjacencies—first selling books, and then publishing them.

What kills companies is fear of experimentation and fear of failure. Agility and experimentation make up the fundamental oxygen for corporate success going forward. If you’re not trying 100 ideas or even 1,000 ideas, you’ll get stuck.

“Creating a culture that allows for crazy ideas to bubble up to the top, and where failure is okay and rapid failure is even better, is critically important to innovation.”

What about when experiments fail?

The most innovative companies have cultures that celebrate failures, because they learn from them. Google, Uber, and all these amazing companies are trying hundreds if not thousands of experiments per year. At the same time, they’re getting better at knowing when to kill projects early—or what’s been called pre-mortems on post-mortems. In this scenario, when a team comes up with a potentially great idea, it then takes shots at it—how might this fail? In investigating that mindset you might find why the idea isn’t viable long term, and you kill the project before investing considerable time, money, and reputation on it. Creating a culture that allows for crazy ideas to bubble up to the top, and where failure is okay and rapid failure is even better, is critically important to innovation.

How can companies balance the need to take risks with the danger of making huge, costly mistakes?

It goes back to rapid experimentation. The big mistakes happen when an executive has a belief or vision, spends years of work and tens of millions of dollars, and then brings to the marketplace a final product no one wants. LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman was quoted as saying, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” It’s about going out with a minimally viable product and learning what people think. It’s about getting feedback and iterating and killing 90% of your darlings, and pouring fuel on the ones that show some potential.

What industries are the most ripe for innovation in the coming years?

Wow, so many. Healthcare, banking, education, retail, real estate—any place where there’s a middle man we’ll see significant disruption. Virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) will get rid of the middle man. You will go directly to a real estate site, and the AI agent will let you visit a house through a VR experience and make a bid on it. Or you’ll go into VR store where you’ll describe what you want and then be presented with a fashion show. Then you’ll be measured within millimeters of accuracy of your physical body dimensions, and your clothes will be manufactured and custom-fitted for you that afternoon. And if you want to do it with your friends, you’ll be able to do it socially by having them join you on the adventure.

Any parting words of advice for the Workday Community?

Yes. The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.