The “Bush-Vail Rules” of breakthrough innovation

In Loonshots , Safi Bahcall examines dozens of “widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.” For example, Pixar’s Ed Catmull refers to early stage ideas for films — loonshots — as “Ugly Babies.” He stresses the need to maintain the balance between loonshots and franchises — “the Beast” — in films.

Of special interest to me is what Bahcall has to say about “The Bush-Vail Rules,” developed by Vannevar Bush (head of what became the Office of Scientific Research and Development) and Theodore Vail (head of what became the Bell Telephone Laboratories)  in order to leverage “the forces of genius and serendipity to work for them [and their colleagues] rather than against them. Luck is the residue of design.”  The ones who truly succeed “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, but that neither side dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.

“The structures that these gardeners create share a common set of principles. I’ll call these principles the Bush-Vail rules.”

There are four:

1. Separate the phases (e.g. separate but coordinate the artists and soldiers)
2. Create dynamic equilibrium (e.g. love and support both groups equally)
3. Spread the system mindset (e.g. constantly ask why and how decisions are made)
4. Raise the magic number (e.g. eliminate politics and posturing, “bring a gun to a knife fight”)

Gardeners share “a surprising new way of thinking about the world around us –and about the mysteries of group behavior.” They are committed to three separate but interdependent concepts:

o The most important breakthroughs in innovation come from the aforementioned loonshots, “widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.”

o ‘Large groups of people are needed to translate these breakthroughs into technologies that win wars [e.g. radar], products that save lives [e.g. mevastatin], or strategies that change industries [e.g. the CCD chip used in every digital camera].”

o “Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better.”

I wholly agree with Daniel Kahneman’s opinion: “This book has everything: new ideas, bold insights, entertaining history, and convincing analysis. Not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand how ideas change the world.”

* * *

Safi Bahcall received his BA in physics from Harvard, his PhD from Stanford, and was a Miller Research Fellow at UC Berkeley. After working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, he co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, he was named E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors on the future of national research. He lives with his wife, two children, and roughly 37 of Mo Willems’ Gerald + Piggie books in Cambridge, MA.





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