Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries
Every so often I come across a book that I know as I'm reading it that my perspective is changing and my horizons are broadening. "Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries" is one such book. From the outset, Safi Bahcall grabs the reader's attention and keeps it with examples from history of what he's going to explain, setting it up to be understood thoroughly. He talks about lessons learned in wartime as well as from Polaroid and space exploration, among other periods and events. There's a lot I could say about this book, but to keep it simple I'll anchor my comments to a few of the many key terms the writer discusses.
To begin, there's the important distinction to be made between a franchise and what Bahcall refers to as a 'loonshot.'
Franchise: The subsequent iterations or updated versions of an original product or service.
Examples provided include each new version of the iPhone and the 26th James Bond Movie. I also relate this to a phenomenon I noticed many years ago among fast food restaurants, where new items on the menu are often just reformulations of existing menu items. A prime example is the 'KFC Famous Bowl,' which marketing now refers to as a 'classic.' Ever since first time it went on sale, not long enough ago to count as a 'classic' by any normal measure, I've seen it as the company just phoning it in. Innovation is too risky, and they already have the ingredients, so they just toss it all in a bowl and sell it.
Loonshot: A neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.
A loonshot is risky, because it's based on an idea that established 'experts' generally consider unfeasible and unfundable. Radar is a famous example of a technology that was roundly rejected by military brass and bureaucrats until it was almost too late. Another is statins, the first of which faced a difficult road to success and acceptance.
False Fail: When a valid hypothesis yields a negative result in an experiment because of a flaw in the design of the experiment.
Sometimes the test is the problem. When Akira Endo was testing a drug to see if it would lower cholesterol, the tests failed. He was testing on rats, which were later discovered to have low levels of LDL (aka 'bad cholesterol'). When he tested on chickens, which have high levels of LDL, the results were spectacular. Eventually, statins resulted, and people were provided a pharmacological solution to high cholesterol. This almost didn't happen, because Endo's research had repeatedly faced setbacks and failures. It was only through luck and his determination to see it through that we now have this option for treatment.
Phases of organization: When an organization is considered as a complex system, we can expect that system to exhibit phases and phase transitions — for instance, between a phase that encourages a focus on loonshots and a phase that encourages a focus on careers.
This part about organizational phases was an eye-opener for me. I've heard various executives over the years complain about the lack of innovation in major corporations generally, and I've always attributed it to the size of such companies making them slow-moving. While that may still be part of it, I now see how managers at various levels act in the interest of their careers over the chance at a breakthrough success. Loonshots are often ugly babies, easily dismissed and lethal to careers if they face failure. Bahcall tells the reader about his observation that loonshots experience three deaths before possibly reaching success, which translates to three failures. Some take years, even decades to see through all the way, and many don't come back from a single death. With them can go any respect or credibility previously accorded their backer(s), making it better to be the person who poo-poos novel ideas in meetings. In career terms, it's the safer route.
To this and more Safi Bahcall offers a handful of solutions and strategies that can foster loonshots, but to get those you'll just have to read the book for yourself.