Loonshots: A book review by Bob Morris

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries
Safi Bahcall
St. Martin’s Press (March 2019)

If an idea doesn’t sound loony, it probably needs much more development…and protection.

In this compellingly entertaining as well as informative book, Safi Bahcall explains how great leaders recognize, develop, and protect “widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.” For example, Pixar’s Ed Catmull (right) refers to early stage ideas for films — loonshots — as “Ugly Babies.” In the passage that follows, Catmull describes the need to maintain the balance between loonshots and franchises — “the Beast” — in films. “Originality is fragile. And, in its first moments, it’s often far from pretty. That is why I call early mock-ups of our films ‘Ugly Babies.’ They are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing — in the form of time and patience — in order to grow. What this means is that they have a hard time coexisting with the Beast….

“When I talk about the Beast and the Baby, it can seem very black and white — that the Beast is all bad and the Baby is all good. The truth is, reality lies somewhere in between. The Beast is a glutton but also a valuable motivator. The Baby is so pure and unsullied, so full of potential, but it’s also needy and unpredictable and can keep you up at night. The key is for your Beast and your Babies to coexist peacefully, and that requires that you keep various forces in balance.”

In Chapter 8, Bahcall discusses Bob Taylor (head of Xerox PARC) and Bill Coughlin (head of Google’s engineering group) who “understood what Ed Catmull [CEO of Pixar] understood about film directors: creative talent responds best to feedback from other creative talent. Peers, rather than authority.”

A wide span of creatives — in terms of both number and diversity — encourages them to help a colleague solve a problem. This is what Tom Davenport and Brooke Manville have in mind (in Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right) when explaining how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered – as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term organizational judgment – the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”

Bahcall recommends and discusses six guidelines when leading efforts to develop and protect loonshots, based on what he learned from leaders such as Bob Taylor and Bill Coughlin. The sixth is one of the most valuable. Increase project-skill fit: “Invest in the people and processes that will scan for a mismatch between employees’ skills and their assigned projects. Adjust roles or transfer employees between groups when mismatches are found. The goal is having employees stretched neither too much nor too little by their roles.”

Loonshooting is definitely not for everyone. All organizations need effective leadership in all areas of the given enterprise. The healthiest organizations need leaders and members of teams that are not hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” They also need leaders and members of teams who share deeply held beliefs about the current franchise. They remain confident that its strategies, tactics, products, and services will sustain it. Loonshots “are contrarian bets that challenge those beliefs.” Who’s right? Both, perhaps, or neither.

Safi Bahcall suggests finding out, asking, “Wouldn’t you rather discover that in your own lab or pilot study rather than read about it in a press release from one of your competitors? How much risk are you willing to take on by dismissing their idea?” Howard Aiken also reminds us: “”Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If its an original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

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