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IAN MANN REVIEWS: Got a really wacky idea? Here's how to make it work

Sep 10 2019 21:45
Ian Mann

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

In author Safi Bahcall's view, the most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as absurd. Most never get a chance.

A 'loonshot' is not the same as a 'disruptive technology', according to Bahcall. Rather, the term refers to an idea or project that most scientific or business leaders think won't work. Worse still, most leaders think that if it did work, it wouldn't make any money or any difference. A disruptive change is easy to spot – with hindsight.

This book is concerned with the foresight. How to give these unlikely ideas the best chances of success, especially when there is no way of telling what that would look like. All one knows is that something important is needed. The author uses many examples to illustrate seminal points, with his tales relating to warfare among the most compelling.

A loonshot is never the result of a lone genius coming up with an overwhelmingly brilliant idea that gets acted on through the sheer power of its brilliance. Loonshots are the products of groups of people working on problems intensively, who then pass them on to others who use, produce or develop them.

"Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries," Bahcall explains.  

How the teams, companies, or groups with a mission need to function is the central theme of this book. It sets out practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better, because most require patience, investment, commitment and conducive work conditions. These rules, counter-intuitively, concern structure more than culture.

There are many examples of valuable loonshots that are buried, so it is prudent to begin by understanding why good companies, with the best intentions and excellent people, kill great ideas.

A bit of fun? 

Nokia, the darling of its industry, was described by Fortune magazine as "the least hierarchical big company in the megaworld." The CEO explained that the key was their culture of allowing "a bit of fun", encouraging thinking unlike the norm and being able to make mistakes.

In 2004, excited Nokia engineers created a new kind of phone: internet-ready, with a big colour touchscreen display and a high-resolution camera. They also promoted an online app store. Nokia's widely admired leadership team shot both projects down. Three years later, the engineers saw their supposedly unfeasible ideas unveiled on a stage in San Francisco by Steve Jobs – Apple's iPhone. Five years later, Nokia was irrelevant.

It is too simplistic to simply assert that big companies fail because their leaders are conservative and risk averse. The truth is that the same leaders can be project-killing conservatives in one context, and flag-waving entrepreneurs in another.

When groups are small, everyone has a high stake in the outcome of the group's project. The perks of corporate rank that may be on offer, are small by comparison. As teams and companies grow larger, the stakes in outcome decrease while the perks of rank increase.

Having cake or eating it

From the stories described in the book we see why being good at loonshots (like original films) and being good at franchises (sequels), are phases of large-group behaviour, and distinct and separate phases at that. No group can do both at the same time.

Those whose companies or units have created loonshots, achieve this by ensuring that both loonshots and 'franchises' are tended well. This requires that neither one is able to dominate, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.  

It is too common for leaders of powerful franchises to dismiss early-stage projects by picking at their weaknesses. In the early stages, all projects are incomplete, have internal contradictions and cannot be examined with the tools of mature ventures. It is akin to tearing opening a chrysalis to check on what the butterfly will look like. The chrysalis stage is too early for judgement and the act of checking destroys the possibility of something beautiful coming to completion.    

The goal is to create a 'loonshot nursery' and this is not simply drawing a box on an organogram or renting a new building. It is to allow the nursery to flourish by actually hiding it (literally,) from the conventional projects.

Efficiency systems such as Six Sigma or Total Quality Management might help conventional projects, but they will suffocate loonshots. When 3M, the inventor of Post-it Notes and Scotch Tape, engaged a CEO who was a proponent of Six Sigma, innovation plunged. It didn't recover until well after he left, and a new CEO brought back the old system.

Pirates

During Steve Jobs' first stint at Apple, he called his loonshot group working on the Mac "pirates". Jobs dismissed the group working on the Apple II franchise as "regular Navy." When Jobs returned twelve years later, he had learned to love his pirates (Jony Ive) and his regular navy (Tim Cook) equally. The value of that balanced respect has been astonishing.

No product works perfectly the first time. When during World War 2, the military loonshop nursery saw that radar systems they had developed were not being used, they made sure that pilots went back to the scientists and investigate why they weren't using it.

The reason had nothing to do with the technology: pilots in the heat of battle didn't have time to fiddle with the complicated switches on the early radar boxes. The issues were resolved with devastating effects on the enemy because of the controlled and respectful interplay of both the nursery and the users. Too many companies try to legislate compliance instead of ensuring a smooth flow between the loonshot nursery and users.

We need to design our teams, companies, and nations to nurture unconventional ideas and their implementation. It is not a question of how much risk you are prepared to take to promote a loonshot nursery. It is a question of how much risk you are prepared to take in failing to do this.

Bahcall has collected a trove of good ideas for loonshots and illustrates these ideas with fascinating examples. He also provides an analysis of the process by comparing it to insights from various branches of science.

This book is well worth working through.

Readability         Light ----+ Serious

Insights              High +---- Low

Practical              High --+-- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and 'The Executive Update.' Views expressed are his own.

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