Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall – My Six Lessons and Takeaways

I love it when I read a book and I feel like I am learning so much that is new to me.  That’s Loonshotsexactly how I felt reading Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win WarsCure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall. I first heard of this book when I heard Krys Boyd interview the author on her Think program on KERA in Dallas.  (Click here to listen to her interview).  I presented my synopsis of this book at the May First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.

Loonshots is a science book, a history book, a business book, a genuine “you’re going to have to stretch a little” book. The author is a physicist, a business thinker, and part historian.  All of that comes into play throughout this book.

I learned so much about…Vannever Bush (and Winston Churchill, and FDR, and their embracing of the need to champion technological breakthroughs); and Polaroid and Edwin Land; and Pan Am; and other “loonshots.”

So, just what is a loonshot? Here’s the argument in brief (from the book):

  1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.
  2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.
  3. Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better.

I also learned of the important role played by the knowledge made available in the New York Public Library.  Without that library, there might not have been a Polaroid, or a Pan Am airlines.

Especially important was the transition between the Loonshot phase and the Franchise phase. The loonshot phase was when the real breakthroughs were discovered. The franchise phase was when those breakthroughs were rolled out with multiple uses and iterations..

In my synopses, I ask: What is the point?  Here it is for this book:  Loonshots change the world for the better. But they are opposed so very strongly. And creating a loonshot factory (“nursery”) is no easy task.

And I ask: Why is this book worth our time?

#1 – This book is a remarkable history of successful changes for the better brought about by successful loonshots. It is history worth learning.
#2 – This book is a tutorial on why it is so hard to keep a loonshot “factory” going.  There are opponents; there are structural barriers.
#3 – This book is a master class on the strength of systems (over the idea of corporate culture).

• Here are a few of the “best of” my highlighted passages:

In every creative field, we see legendary teams suddenly, and mysteriously, turn.
Being good at nurturing loonshots is a phase of human organization… Being good at developing franchises (like movie sequels) is a different phase of organization, in the same way that being solid is a different phase of matter.
As teams and companies grow larger, the stakes in outcome decrease while the perks of rank increase. When the two cross, the system snaps. Incentives begin encouraging behavior no one wants. Those same groups—with the same people—begin rejecting loonshots.
But the ones who truly succeed—the engineers of serendipity—play a more humble role. Rather than champion any individual loonshot, they create an outstanding structure for nurturing many loonshots. …Rather than visionary innovators, they are careful gardeners.
IBM missed an S-type shift—a change in what customers care about. Today, the combined market value of Microsoft and Intel, the two tiny vendors IBM hired, is close to $ 1.5 trillion, more than ten times the value of IBM.
Without the certainties of franchises, the high failure rates of loonshots would bankrupt companies and industries. Without fresh loonshots, franchise developers would shrivel and die.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered by Bedouin shepherds in a desert cave near the Dead Sea in modern-day Israel, archaeologists offered to pay the shepherds for each new scrap they found. That encouraged the shepherds to rip any scrolls they found into tiny scraps. The archaeologists had the right idea in theory but didn’t think through the perverse incentive in practice.
Examining the unintended effects of well-intentioned goals has not received much study.
A loonshot refers to an idea or project that most scientific or business leaders think won’t work, or if it does, it won’t matter (it won’t make money). It challenges conventional wisdom. Whether a change is “disruptive” or not, on the other hand, refers to the effects of an invention on a market.

• Here are a few of my other observations from the book:

  • You needed the invention/discovery genius, AND the champion of that genius
  • In the high-stakes competition between weapons and counterweapons, the weak link was not the supply of new ideas. It was the transfer of those ideas to the field.
  • People who don’t believe in the loonshot really, really don’t like the loonshot
  • Another desk chief wrote dismissively that the idea was “a wild dream with practically no chance of real success,” listing a handful of reasons it was impractical… “It really pained me … to think how much two years of fleet experience with radar before 1941 could have saved us in lives, planes, ships and battles lost during the initial phases of the Pacific war.”
  • partly turf wars; partly distrust of outsiders… (note, R.M., remember Thomas Kuhn, paradigm shifts, and the role of the outsider)
  • The two types of Loonshots
  • The P-Type – a breakthrough in product
  • The S-Tyoe – a breakthrough in strategy
  • There was a great lesson about the decision-making process (a lesson from Garry Kasparov, the Chess Champion):
  • Teams with an outcome mindset, level 1, analyze why a project or strategy failed. • Teams with a system mindset, level 2, probe the decision-making process behind a failure.
  • And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Many leaps forward require a technological breakthrough. Getting to that technological breakthrough is seriously hard work; requiring technological expertise, and dogged people skills.
#2 – The possibility of a next loonshot goes down as the size of the organization goes up.
#3 – But, this size dilemma can be offset with changes in the systems.
#4 – And, the idea for the next loonshot may be found by the “outsider,” with “outsider thinking.”
#5 – Be sure to praise both the loonshot genius and the strategy genius (and the perpetual tweaker)
#6 – And… We will never fix the traffic problem! (I threw this in as sort of an extra.  But, the book does kind of explains the why…).

Loonshots deserves to be read (along with other books trying to make sense of just where breakthroughs come from).  It is a fun, stimulating, and rich-with-insight book to read.


Our synopses are available to purchase from this website.  Each synopsis comes with my multi-page, comprehensive handouts, along with the audio recording of my presentations.  (Click here to see our newest additions).  You can search for titles through the search box on the “buy synopses’ tab at the top of this page.  My synopsis for Loonshots will be available soon.

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