Book review. Loonshots: How to nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases, and transform industries

This book, by Safi Bahcall, is about how to nurture radical breakthroughs in science and technology.

The book draws inspiration from the innovations Vannevar Bush made possible Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), created in 1941, and the innovations Theodore N. Vail enabled at Bell.

OSRD's portfolio of accomplishments is impressive indeed. The war against Nazis is won through superiority in the field of science. The bombers' microwave radar cut through darkness and fog to detect German U-Boats, and rendered them ineffective in a matter of weeks.

The book compiles insights from the organizational principles Bush and Vail employed as Bush-Vail rules. The main concept here is of a dynamic equilibrium, where the organization maintains well-separated and equally strong loonshot and franchise groups (phase separation) continuously exchanging projects and ideas in both directions.

Summary of the The Bush-Vail rules

1. Separate the phases
  • separate your artists and soldiers
  • tailor the tools to the phase
  • watch your blind side: nurture both types of loonshots
2. Create dynamic equilibrium
  • love your artists and soldiers equally
  • manage the transfer, not the technology: be a gardener, not a Moses
  • appoint and train project champions to bridge the divide

3. Spread a system mindset
  • keep asking why the organization made the choices it did
  • keep asking how the decision-making process can be improved
  • identify teams with outcome mindset and help them adopt system mindset

4. Raise the magic number (Dunbar's number 150)
  • reduce return-on-politics
  • use soft equity (nonfinancial rewards)
  • increase project-skill fit
  • fix the middle (reduce perverse incentives for middle managers)
  • bring a gun to knife fight (engage a chief incentives officer)
  • fine-tune the spans (wide for loonshots groups; narrow for franchise groups)

Other examples in the book include: Peniciline citrium by Akira Endo, cancer drugs by Judah-Falkman, and Pan-Am's story. All of these were very engaging stories and I didn't know any of these before. One of my favorite quotes in the book is: "It is not a good drug unless it's been killed by three times."

Toward the end, the book talks about the Joseph Needham question: "Why didn't the Scientific Revolution take place in China (or India or Ottoman Empire), despite all its advantages?"

The book attributes the emergence of the scientific method in Europe to the ripe loonshot conditions in Europe.

  1. phase separation: separate loonshot and franchise groups
  2. dynamic equilibrium: seamless exchange between the two groups
  3. critical mass: a loonshot group large enough to ignite

MAD questions

1. What are the new things I learned from this book?
My 20 years in academic circles instilled in me the impression that you cannot manage innovation and research, instead you can only hope to cultivate it. My informal Twitter poll returned the following result. (I don't know of the ratio of the academic versus industrial people that voted on this.)
The book doesn't take an explicit position on my question above, but as the title "Bush-Vail rules" suggests, it tries to formulate rules for nurturing the loonshot/innovation process. But what good are these rules? I am certain that they are not sufficient for producing a successful loonshot. I am not sure if they are even necessary. But I agree that they would help increase your chances of success. And I also agree that they are more concrete than just suggesting "form strong teams and get out of their way." The question is how much more concrete advice is this from that bottomline?

In comparison, the book I read last month, "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration" focused on a much narrower domain, that of the loonshots accomplished within Pixar, but delivered more concrete advice for managing the creative process.

Lest you think I didn't like this book, I did enjoy the Loonshots book a lot and recommend it to anyone interested in building organizations that nurture creative work.

2. On a micro scale, does this explain the draft and revise principle in writing?
Drafting is the artist side. Revising is the soldier side. You can't have good writing unless you love both sides equally, and unless both sides interact with each other in a dynamic equilibrium. At some point, a phase transition occurs and you get to the correct narrative for your writing.

As Hemingway said: "The first draft of anything is shit."


Lugus said…
"The war against Nazis is won through superiority in the field of science."

No, The war was won by the sacrifice of the people of the USSR :

USSR : 20,000,000 to 27,000,000 deaths
UK : 450,900 deaths
USA : 419,400 deaths

Nazi Germany : 6,900,000 to 7,400,000 deaths

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