5 books, part 3: Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

591 words, 3 minutes.

Loonshot: a widely dismissed idea whose champions are often written off as crazy.

If you’ve ever worked in a corporate, I’m sure you’ll have heard somebody at some point say: “that’s not the way we do things around here”. The culture of maintaining the status quo brings about fixed mindsets, yet if there’s one constant, it’s change. To keep up in today’s technology-led, ever changing world, a business needs to be innovative.

Loonshots addresses the disconnect between being innovative and trying to maintain stability. These are two different worlds, with different mindsets. Through a variety of stories and characters, Safi Bahcall shows how large organisations in the past have successfully created ‘loonshot nurseries’. 

You could easily use Loonshots as a manifesto for how to innovate inside a large organisation. The appendix of the book even lists a set of rules for guidance. But it’s not just about enabling innovation, the ideas within Loonshots can help with bridging any disparate worlds.

Without listing the rules (other blog reviews have, I’ll not detract from the value of reading the whole book though) there are a few valuable lessons in Loonshots.

There are large differences in culture between corporates and startups, dictated by a simple idea. Dunbar’s Number, Bahcall discusses Dunbar’s Number, and how some organisational structure changes can remove the barrier it creates. There’s a very interesting chapter on DARPA, for example, which shows ‘soft equity’ as a motivation tool.

Speaking of motivation, reading that chapter reminded me of Dan Pink’s the puzzle of motivation talk. It’s worth a watch if you’ve not seen it before.

“Separate your artists and soldiers”

With his background in science, Bahcall naturally references his knowledge throughout the book. He compares the shift away from an innovative company to a phase transition. Put another way, a tipping point. In trying to recapture the innovative spirit, he recommends forming exclusive teams, with the creative inventor types separated from the day-to-day operations.

That should immediately strike you as a recipe for disaster. It’s highly likely to create a ‘them and us’ culture. Which is where his next historic example comes in, from the mind of Vannevar Bush, ‘create dynamic equilibrium’. Create a separate team, department or subsidiary, but make sure it, and the parent, are in constant communication. This reminded me of a TED talk I’d watched some years ago by Yves Morieux, titled “As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify” (if you’d like to read rather than watch, there’s a blog post by Yves too). Rule number 1: understand what your colleagues do.

“And then we’ll see how small changes in structure can transform the behaviour of groups”

If you work in the technology industry, you’ll see a parallel that was a great idea but has failed to deliver for many; DevOps. The original ethos was about connecting the stability seeking ‘ops’ world with the innovation-chasing ‘dev’ world. Products and consultancies sprang up, promising to bring you the all important innovation through DevOps. Yet most miss the key part of the puzzle, people. DevOps teams become a new silo, with the dynamic equilibrium sadly absent.

Bahcall and Morieux have one thing in common: their ideas learn from Vannevar Bush’s thinking. It’s funny that we’d solved a lot of these problems 80 years ago, isn’t it?

In the next post of the series we’ll look at Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy. This was the most enjoyable book I read in 2019. It made me realise something so obvious—every coin has two sides. If you can’t change the situation, reframe it.