Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

Reviewed on , book by Safi Bahcall

No, it’s not a typo for moonshot—a loonshot is “a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.” Whereas the author defines moonshot as: “An ambitious and expensive goal, widely expected to have great significance.” The author walks us through numerous historical examples of the successful cultures that have pulled off numerous loonshots. It’s worth noting that this book is not about creating a creative environment from scratch (startups are all about loonshots), but rather, about creating a high-risk, creative environment within an existing organization (or beraucracy).

To me, the most important take-away from the book is that organizations need to create two distinct cultures to strike a balance between nurting loonshots and rewarding franchises, i.e. incrementing on and maintaining what’s already there. A good example is at Bell, where in the Labs the transistor was invented while the franchise received enormous care as well, by expanding the existing telephone network and all the other maintenance that comes with operating such national infrastructure. You have your soldiers, those who maintain and increment, and you have your artists, the people seeking to make the step-change. Both are critical, but many organizations reward one more than the other, and doesn’t create an environment where they can co-exist in harmony. One reason is that at some magical point, the incentives in an organization shifts towards career-preservation rather than taking risks. You will need to seperate these groups to some degreee, since fundamentally the culture that rewards either need to be distinct. However, you also need them to co-operate, otherwise, you end up with a Xeroc PARC that’s too isolated for its own good.

People responsible for developing high-risk, early-stage ideas (call them “artists”) need to be sheltered from the “soldiers” responsible for the already-successful, steady-growth part of an organization. Early-stage projects are fragile. “Although military officers became avid for a new development once it had thoroughly proved itself in the field,” Bush wrote, they dismissed any weapon “in embryo”—as they did with radar, with the DUKW truck, and with nearly every early innovation, which almost always arrives covered in warts. Without a strong cocoon to protect those early-stage ideas, they will be shut down or buried, like Young and Taylor’s early discovery of radar.
A good example is Jobs in the 80s versus Jobs in the 2000s. Jobs in the 80s created serious hostility with the team at Apple that worked on incremental additions to their already successful products. Meanwhile, Jobs was working on the Macintosh project. Jobs learned later in his life, upon his return to Apple in the 2000s, to see the value in both his artists (Jony Ive) and soldiers (Tim Cook). The author offers the analogy of phase transition repeatedly in the book: what you are aiming for is not purely ice, not purely water water, rather, the elegant phase in between where the water is 0 degrees with patches of ice in it. An example was the development of the radar, at first the pilots ignored it, but the feedback made it back to the scientists who made it easier and easier to use until it became far superior to their eyes.

Bahcall adds a few useful extensions to the now-developed loonshot idea. E.g. the “Moses trap”, where you have one leader that is the source of the majority of ideas. The right people who nurture loonshots see themselves more as gardeners of a culture that fosters loonshots, rather than the source of them.

…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. They ensure that both loonshots and franchises are tended well, that neither side dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.
The author also distinguishes between “product type” loonshots, e.g. launching commercial jet planes across the Atlantic, and “strategic type” loonshots, e.g. management strategies to cut costs to make tickets cheaper.