Uniquely Effective Leadership: Loonshooting

In Longshots, Safi Bahcall explains how great leaders “nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases, and transform industries.” That is, “widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.” For example, in Chapter 8 he 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 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.”

Here are six guidelines that Bahcall recommends, based on what he learned from leaders such as Bob Taylor and Bill Coughlin:

o Reduce the return on politics: “Make lobbying for compensation and promotion decisions difficult.”

o Use soft equity: “Identify and apply the nonfinancial rewards that make a big difference

o Increase project-skill fit: “Invest in the people and processes that will scan for a mismatch between employees’ skills and their assigned projects.”

o Fix the middle: “Identify and fix perverse incentives, the unintended consequences of well-intentioned rewards.”

o Bring a gun to a knife fight: “C and loonshots may be usingompetitirs in the battle for talent  outmoded incentive systems.”

o Fine-tune the spans: “Widen management spans [number of members] in loonshot groups (but not in the franchise grouups) to enclourage looser controls, more experiments, and peer-to-peer problem solving.”

Loonshots was published by St. Martin’s Press (March 2019).

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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.




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