Steve Pollack Book Review | Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

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loonshots Safi Bahcall

Safi Bahcall, the author of opens in a new windowLoonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, is a second-generation physicist (the son of two astrophysicists) and a biotech entrepreneur. The title of his book “Loonshots” is a play on the term “moonshot” which can be defined as:

  • The launching of a spacecraft to the moon;
  • an ambitious and expensive goal, widely expected to have great significance.

Bahcall coined the word “loonshot,” to describe a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged. A loonshot is an idea that is perceived as too risky to waste time and money developing because trusted “experts” have rejected it as unfeasible and unfundable.

Bahcall shares many historical and contemporary stories of loonshots that were initially rejected, but have since transformed industries and saved lives. Radar is one example he offers. Bahcall details how that world-changing technology was tossed aside for years by military bureaucrats before it was ultimately developed (at the insistence of a “loon” who would not abandon it). 

At its core, Bahcall’s book is an examination of the conditions within a group that either encourage or kill innovation.  He describes his underlying message as a focus on structure rather than culture, asserting that, "By just focusing on culture, you’re just treating the surface and addressing the surface issues. If you don’t understand what’s driving them underneath, you could miss very big opportunities. Fixing culture is very difficult. It’s like pushing a battleship. Adjusting structure, it’s like turning the rudder. It’s much easier.”

Bahcall begins his exploration of this organizational structure change using the analogy of a glass of water as it is reaching the temperature that transforms it from liquid form to solid. The water molecules themselves remain identical in either form, yet at precisely 32 degrees Fahrenheit the molecules "know" to uniformly transition into a solid. He calls this moment of change in structure “phase transition.”

Bahcall says all phase transitions are the result of two competing forces. When people organize into a team, a company, or any kind of group with a shared mission they face two competing forces—two forms of incentives—loosely described as stake and rank. When groups are small, everyone’s stake in the outcome of the group project is high. At a small biotech, for example, if the drug works, everyone will be a hero and a millionaire.  But when groups grow larger, stake loses its incentive power and the perks of rank (position, salary) become priorities—and detrimental behaviors thrive.

To avoid the conflict inherent in competing incentives, Bahcall makes an intelligent case for the importance of building into your organization’s structure the opportunity for “artists working on loonshots” and “soldiers working on franchises” to function separately, equitably and at their highest potential.

The ideas and strategies Bahcall presents in Loonshots are not rocket science, but they are intelligently researched and presented with creative language that prompts the reader to dig deeper. As an example, Part One of the book is titled “Engineers of Serendipity," an apt oxymoron for how Bahcall moves in the world as a physicist, entrepreneur, and philosopher.

Read Loonshots for a thoroughly researched, intelligently designed, and creatively presented course on how to incubate and support innovation in your organization.

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