Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

by styleabille , May 17, 2020

Book Reviews

This is my 40th day in confinement. I have read six books and I am in the process of reading Iron John by Robert Bly. Loonshots is one of the good books I have read during the global pandemic – COVID19.

This same review appeared earlier on my LinkedIn profile.

About the author

The author is a second generation physicist and an entrepreneur in biotechnology. He graduated from Harvard and Stanford. He started his career working for McKinsey and then he established his own company developing drugs for cancer. In 2008, he was named by Ernst and Young as New England’s Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the year. In 2011, he was part of President Obama’s council of science advisors focusing on the future of national research. Loonshots is his first book!

About the book

A loonshot is a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.

In a nutshell, this book takes a tour behind the scenes of crazy ideas that changed the world. The author tackles how wars are won and why they are initiated, how diseases are cured and why they spread, and how industries are transformed and why they must. A timely read that explains radical breakthroughs at the intersect of human nature and world history.

The book is daring as it questions the validity of innovation pioneers’ theories around disruption (Galambos and Christensen). He makes his point by leveraging a wide range of examples comprising the spread of forest fires, the hunt of terrorists online, and the magnificent stories of scientists, kings, thieves, and geniuses. The real value of the book lies in two primary abilities that the author demonstrates. Firstly, Bahcall truly writes the essence of the stories. I felt at no point the need to skip a paragraph or a page. Secondly, he equips willing creatives, entrepreneurs, and visionaries with lessons learned from loonshots and with techniques to run projects, organizations, and nations.

Key takeaways

1-      The CEO should not be the CIO (1). They both must be equally strong continuously and seamlessly exchanging ideas in both directions. When the CEO is the CIO, the result is typically chaos. When there is no CIO, the result is usually stagnation.

Artists and soldiers must be separated. Yet they both need to be cared for. Project champions should bridge the divide.

2-      When must one give up on a project? If someone challenges a project, investigate genuine curiosity. When there is no interest (no-one is buying, something is not working, etc.), one must worry the most and ask two questions

  1. Why choices have been made as they were
  2. How decisions have been made

3-      Structure influences culture. The opposite is not true. Minor adjustments to structure allow bringing an organization towards sustainable and renewable creativity. The gist of innovation is a system mindset rather than an outcome mindset.

4-      Organizations can move from office politics towards loonshots by having bigger teams organized around projects – a loonshot group is large enough to ignite (unlike operators, support functions, etc.). Competition is diluted and cooperation is nurtured. This must be accompanied by a shift in incentives: from encouraging a focus on careers (politics of promotion) to the focus on loonshots. This measure also means that lobbying for higher pay and better ranks have to be made difficult and less dependent on the line manager.

5-      Middle managers are the weakest link in the battle between loonshots and politics. Their incentive scheme needs not to nurture politics.

If you have interest in how and why birds flock, fish swim, brains work, people vote, criminals behave, ideas spread, and ecosystems

[1] Chief Innovation Officer.

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