Physicist Safi Bahcall’s original, entertaining take on managing innovation draws on science, economics, psychology and history to provide a rundown of some of the most important ideas of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Physicist Safi Bahcall – co-founder and former CEO of Synta Pharmaceuticals – argues that “babies,” that is, innovations, require protection from “beasts,” that is, organizations. However, babies need beasts to test, give feedback and implement change. Bahcall distinguishes “artists” as creatives from “soldiers” as implementers, and provides insightful portraits of seminal innovators – Pan Am’s Juan Trippe, Polaroid’s Edwin Land and Pixar’s Ed Catmull.
Moonshots, like sending astronauts to the moon, attract money and fanfare. In contrast, Bahcall says, new ideas, or “loonshots,” progress in obscurity. He finds that when the right teams come together, including a powerful champion who protects these early ideas and connects them to everyday operations, loonshots can change the world.
Bahcall believes success stems from emphasizing structural change rather than building a culture in which everyone creates. “Soldiers” matter as much as “artists,” the author avows. If everyone plays artist, Bahcall points out, the machinery of the business and its ability to scale and deliver innovation will atrophy, bringing the organization to a halt.
An instant Wall Street Journal bestseller, Loonshots was the number one Most Recommended Book of the Year in Bloomberg’s annual survey of CEOs. Amazon, Bloomberg, Financial Times, Forbes, Inc., Newsweek, Strategy + Business, Tech Crunch and The Washington Post all cited it as a Best Business Book of the Year. Newsweek called it, “A groundbreaking book that spans industries and time.” And, Nobelist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, said, “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.”
Bahcall champions separating and protecting innovators and appointing a powerful champion to keep corporate meddlers at bay. This, he instructs, keeps innovators close to the “franchise” – the soldiers responsible for an organization’s day-to-day success. As innovators’ productively fail, “dynamic equilibrium” balances their need for isolation and protection against their parallel need to connect to the organization to fine-tune their ideas for eventual implementation.
The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots – widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.Safi Bahcall
One of Bahcall’s main points is that the most important, valuable breakthroughs don’t succeed on their own merits or the brilliance of their inventors alone. Breakthroughs typically face rejection – if not hostility – before succeeding, and most get buried forever. Bahcall depicts those breakthroughs in detail.
If you’re an innovator, Bahcall urges you to listen to negative feedback, be curious about understanding it and then press on. He believes if you’re growing defensive or attacking your attackers, it may be time to fold.
Innovative Products and Strategy
Bahcall explains that loonshots take two forms: “P-type” for products and “S-type” for strategy. The best innovators, he emphasizes, do both. The author regards aviation pioneer, Juan Trippe, as exemplifying the first category. Trippe founded Pan-Am in 1929, invented commercial air travel, funded the development of plane-based radar, introduced commercial jet aircraft, and helped develop the US space and missile programs.
It is surprisingly easy to unintentionally create perverse incentives.Safi Bahcall
But, Bahcall laments, Trippe let his passion for innovation dominate while ignoring his S-type “blind side.” Bahcall blames Pan Am’s decline on its decision to unfold excessive product innovation too quickly.
The “Moses Trap”
Bahcall chronicles how brilliant P-type innovator Edwin Land built Polaroid into a billion-dollar company with the instant-image camera and helped create the first digital imagery system using satellite communications.
Loonshots flourish in loonshot nurseries, not in empires devoted to franchises. Safi Bahcall
Land, Bahcall reports, essentially invented digital photography in the late 1960s. Consumer digital cameras could have saved his company, but, Bahcall recounts, Land fell into the “Moses Trap,” which cripples firms that develop only those ideas that their charismatic leaders promote, rather than innovate by swapping ideas and feedback between soldiers and creatives. Polaroid fired Land and later, inevitably according to Bahcall, declared bankruptcy.
Innovate, Don’t Stagnate
Bahcall posits that large companies – which can afford loonshots – fear stepping outside the status quo. At startups, however, a loonshot that offers a one-in-ten chance of success looks good and, the author reminds you, the startup might make millions. Thus, Bahcall avows, startups innovate while giants stagnate.
Bahcall characterizes Steve Jobs as loving artists more than soldiers and focusing on Apple’s sexiest products while humiliating those – including his partner Steve Wozniak – who improved Apple’s cash cows. Apple let Jobs go, but, Bahcall notes, Jobs repeated his mistakes at his startup NeXT and at Pixar. After Jobs nearly destroyed Pixar by emphasizing not animation, but the amazing, impractical PIC computer, Bahcall tracks how Pixar’s founder Ed Catmull produced Toy Story, which validated Pixar as a commercial and artistic pioneer.
Being good at loonshots and good at franchises are phases of an organization – whether that organization is a team, a company or a nation.Safi Bahcall
Thus, Bahcall underscores, Catmull taught Jobs the importance of the “the beast and the baby.” Jobs focused on the innovation baby, only to see his efforts die at the hands of the practical beast. Catmull knew babies need protection, but to develop into something useful and sustainable, they also require the practical beast.
Bahcall bemoans the leaders who lack both “P-type” and “S-type” abilities. But he proves himself to be a rare double of a different, admirable type. Bahcall is a compelling storyteller – as his sagas of industry innovators prove – and a brilliant, game-changing business theorist and guide. His words and ideas leap off the page, propelled with the palpable energy he admires in innovative leaders.
The big ideas – the breakthroughs that change the course of science, business and history – fail many times before they succeed.Safi Bahcall
Bahcall’s ideas and tales will galvanize both people at startups and those entrenched in more hidebound, slower-moving organizations. He may prove especially inspirational for anyone considering starting a company who can consider his or her own gifts objectively and use Bahcall’s advice for sound team building.
Parallel works exploring new modes of operating in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world include Range by David Epstein, Think Again by Adam Grant, Drive by Daniel H. Pink, and Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace.