Have you ever wondered what we can learn from human nature and world history from a glass of water?
Or why traffic jams appear out of nowhere (seriously, why?!)?
Meet Safi Bahcall. Safi is a physicist and entrepreneur who reveals a surprising new way of thinking about the mysteries of group behavior. This new way of thinking challenges everything we thought we knew about nurturing radical breakthroughs and is brilliantly presented in his new book, Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.
Bahcall shows why teams, companies, or any group with a mission will suddenly change from embracing wild new ideas to rigidly rejecting them, just as flowing water will suddenly change into brittle ice. Mountains of print have been written about culture. Loonshots identifies the small shifts in structure that control this transition, the same way that temperature controls the change from water to ice.
We sat down with Safi Bahcall to learn more about his new book, and we’re thrilled to share his insights:
For those just hearing about “loonshots,” can you take a moment to tell us about what it is and how you came up with this term?
The big ideas that have changed our world—the breakthroughs that have changed the course of science, business, and history—were rarely announced with blaring trumpets and red carpets, dazzling everyone with their brilliance. The most important ideas were often neglected and dismissed for decades, their champions written off as crazy. That’s why I call them loonshots.
A moonshot is a destination, a big exciting goal, like eliminating poverty or curing cancer. Nurturing loonshots is how we get there.
For example, when President John F. Kennedy announced to Congress in 1961 his goal of putting a man on the moon, he was widely applauded. Four decades earlier, though, when Robert Goddard described the principles that might get us to the moon—jet propulsion and rocket flight—he’d been widely ridiculed. The New York Times, for example, wrote in an editorial that Goddard didn’t seem to understand the basic physics that we teach children in high school, namely that Newton’s law on action and reaction made rocket flight in space impossible. (Years later, after the successful Apollo 11 rocket launch to the moon, the paper issued a retraction, saying that rockets did not, in fact, violate the laws of physics and “the Times regrets the error.”)
Kennedy’s speech marked the original moonshot. Goddard’s idea was a classic loonshot.
I came up with the term because I couldn’t think of any better way to capture the concept in one word!
We’re so glad you did. It’s a great word! In general, from your historical examples presented in the book, it seems like S-type loonshots have more staying power and success in the long run. Do you feel both S-types and P-types are necessary to a company’s success?
Some companies can succeed for a while just with superior products, e.g. Land and Polaroid; Trippe and Pan Am; IBM and the first PCs. But if they just focus on products, they will ultimately be caught by a competitor who exploits an unexpected shift in strategy: an S-type loonshot.
If someone reading this now works for a small company or a start-up, what’s the best way to nurture loonshots and separate loonshots (and the artists behind them) from the franchises (the soldiers who execute sales for core businesses)?
There’s a pervasive myth of the genius—entrepreneur who builds a long-lasting empire on the back of his or her ideas and inventions. Like a Moses standing on top of a mountain, raising his staff, anointing the holy loonshot: “This is the chosen product.”
The ones who succeed adopt a different mindset: they lead less like a Moses and more like a careful gardener. Rather than champion any individual loonshot, they create an outstanding structure for nurturing many loonshots. They ensure that both loonshots and franchises are tended well. That early-stage baby ideas move out into the field neither too early nor too late, that neither side dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.
In a larger company, one way to create this structure is by assigning different roles to those working on loonshots (artists) and those working on franchises (soldiers).
At a smaller company or startup, you may not have enough people to create separate roles. What you can do is emulate this structure by separating the work by time rather than by role.
With a small group, you carve out a period of time—a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks—where you shift into a different mode of thinking: a radical-innovation, loonshot mode. The processes and metrics you want to use are different than when you are focused on franchise growth. In loonshot mode, for example, you want to emphasize speed and rapid try-and-fail and the ground rules for great brainstorming and experimentation. This is very different from franchise-growth mode, where the emphasis is on operational excellence in delivering current products to customers.
What’s your best advice to leaders who might tend to overlook loonshots, or not spend time nurturing them? How can this book help them not to miss the next big loonshot?
We want to discover important loonshots early, when we can act on them, not late, when they arrive like a bullet to the head.
We nurture loonshots internally, both types, to see them first from the inside and learn what to do about them. We want to look not for all their obvious flaws, but for what crazy possible variants of these ideas might actually make them work. How might someone use this idea or product or strategy to kill us: to take our customers or decimate one of our businesses?
One example of what to do immediately: form a small group—a Kill-the-Business, red-team group that is cross-functional, high-energy, creative, thoughtful, and mixed-seniority (not just top execs)—and ask them to present in three months on what surprising moves your company’s competitors, suppliers, substitutes, and/or customers could do that would massively hurt your business.
And then ask what steps your company could take now (a) to reduce those risks, and/or (b) use those as opportunities against your competitors, or to grow new revenue lines or entirely new businesses.
Such great advice, thank you! You mention that “probing wins critically” is as important (if not more so) as probing losses. How can leaders do this effectively?
Formalize the process of post-mortems after every important outcome—not just the failures. In other words, include big successes. Emphasize at the start of each such post-mortem that the common trap is complacency: everyone patting each other on the back after great success, and concluding, retrospectively, that every decision along the way was the right decision.
The job of the post-mortem is to investigate, like a curious detective (Columbo-style or Sherlock Holmes-style) which of our decisions did we do right, and which in hindsight should we have done better despite the positive outcome? For example, look for places where the team got lucky and succeeded despite a good outcome (which is almost always there).
At the end, report on what should be done differently in the future: how we analyze opportunities, how we make decisions, how we launch products, etc.
It will be all the more powerful when it follows a great success rather than a great failure.
Thank you, Safi, for writing such a thought-provoking, well-researched, and brilliantly presented book. We are grateful to you for Loonshots and for your time. We highly recommend this incredible new business book—honestly, you won’t regret adding it to your TBR (to-be-read) pile immediately. If you’d like to purchase 25+ copies for your team or organization, please visit Loonshots on our website or feel free to contact us for a quote at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Safi, check here.
This post was written by Karlyn Hixson, Marketing Director at BookPal. She is currently reading Educated by Tara Westover.