Is it possible to unlock the potential to create and nurture the crazy ideas that change the world? It is, according to physicist and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall, in his recently released book Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. Here, drawing on the science of phase transitions, he explains how nurturing these so-called loonshots can also benefit organisations and change group behaviour.
IM: As a physicist and biotech entrepreneur, what drove you to write this book?
When I first started my biotech company, as a young entrepreneur, I read everything I could find about leadership and innovation and building great teams and companies, and pretty soon I got frustrated with all the soft-psychology advice about culture, which started sounding the same.
There was also something odd about all that print culture. Glossy magazines would celebrate the winning cultures of innovative teams. Covers would show smiling employees raising gleaming new products like runners raising the Olympic torch. And then, so many times, those same companies would crash and burn.
The people are the same; the culture is the same; but suddenly they would turn. Why? Do people wake up one day and suddenly decide – let’s stop innovating today? Why is it that good teams, with the best intentions and excellent people, will kill great ideas?
It reminded me of what in physics we call a phase transition. If you stick your finger in a glass of water, you can swish it around. Except as you lower the temperature, all of a sudden the behaviour completely changes. Why? The molecules inside are exactly the same. I found that applying this science to the behaviour of groups gives us new insights about how to create more innovative structures, rather than just cultures.
IM: What exactly is a loonshot?
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. 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. Kennedy’s speech marked the original moonshot. Goddard’s idea was a classic loonshot.
IM: Can you give us an example of a loonshot that has indeed changed the world?
For most of human history, tribal leaders or divine rulers or great-man philosophers would tell you what was true and what was false. In Western Europe, in the 17th century plus or minus a few years, a new idea emerged: underlying everything we see are universal truths and those truths can be determined through measurement and experiment. In other words, that there are laws of nature and anyone can discover them.
That idea, now known by its more modern name, the scientific method, was radical. If truth could be revealed to anyone – were rulers really divine? The idea democratised truth. It was subversive. Its champions were dismissed as unhinged. That idea was arguably the mother of all loonshots.
The rise and explosive spread of the scientific method across Western Europe, and the revolution in industry it created, sparked a pace and scale of change unlike any other in human history.
IM: How can organisations begin to encourage and support these loonshots?
The bad news about the changes in organisations is that phase transitions are inevitable. All liquids freeze. The good news is that understanding the forces that cause a transition allows us to manage it. Water freezes at 32 Fahrenheit. On snowy days, we toss salt on our sidewalks to lower that freezing temperature. We want the snow to melt rather than harden into ice.
We use the same principle to engineer better materials. Adding a small amount of carbon to iron creates a much stronger material: steel. Adding nickel to steel creates some of the strongest alloys we know: the steels used inside jet engines and nuclear reactors.
Loonshots identifies the four control parameters that allow us to engineer more innovative teams and companies. Those are the equivalent of the carbon we add to iron, or the temperature we adjust for water. Those are the small changes in structure, rather than culture, that can transform a rigid team.
Leaders spend so much time preaching innovation. But it doesn’t matter if CEOs yell through bullhorns to innovate, innovate, innovate. One desperate molecule can’t prevent ice from crystallising around it as the temperature drops. Small changes in structure, however, can melt steel.
IM: What other changes can companies make so that they thrive?
One key question is how teams focused on radical innovation can innovate faster and better. But a different one is how does a company balance innovation and operational excellence. That’s a really tough thing to do.
Here’s one way to think about why – and what – you can do about it. In Loonshots, I show why innovating well is what scientists call an emergent behaviour: it’s a property of the whole that doesn’t depend on the details of the parts, in the same way that liquids slosh around while solids are rigid and shatter.
That’s true for any liquid or any solid, regardless of the size or shape of the molecules. A state with a specific emergent behaviour is called a phase: liquid phase, solid phase.
So I show that innovating well is one phase of organisation (the loonshot phase), while excelling on operations and growing franchises is a different phase of organisation (the franchise phase).
A system can’t be in two phases at the same time for the same reason that water can’t be both liquid and solid at the same time. Yet to survive and thrive, companies have to do both. So what can they do? There’s one exception to that rule that systems can’t be in two phases at the same time: right on the edge of a phase transition – life at 32 Fahrenheit.
On the edge of a transition, two things happen: phase separation and dynamic equilibrium. The two phases break apart, but stay connected. In Loonshots, I translate what that means in practice for teams and companies (less molecules, more humans!)
IM: In summary, what advice would you give innovation leaders today?
First: Spend as much time thinking about structure as you do thinking about culture.
Second: Be a gardener, not a Moses. Here’s what I mean by that: 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. But the ones who truly succeed play a more humble role.
Rather than champion any individual loonshot, they create an outstanding structure for nurturing many loonshots. Rather than visionary innovators, they’re careful gardeners. 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. They make sure that neither side dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.
Third: Read. But not the usual stuff in your field, what all your friends and colleagues are reading: then you’ll have the same inspiration as them. I wish I had read more widely and broadly as a CEO. When you dive into history, whether in science or technology or business or the arts, you learn so much that can give you a stunningly fresh take on big problems. Reading widely is often where new ideas come from.
Find Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries here.