Loonshots (Book Review)

In Loonshots we’re taken on an innovative journey by Safi Bahcall. In the book, he argues how we can stimulate loonshots (moonshots, innovative new products, high chance of failure) on a personal and company level. He talks about the ingredients for loonshots, uses many examples (which can be a bit too detailed) and makes you want to start your own loonshot factory.

From my (read: Queal’s) perspective, I have mixed feelings about the need and viability of loonshots. What if innovation and progress are made in small steps? Bahcall does mention this in the book and I think he is also on board with this concept. He calls them franchises (making the next iteration/update of an original product). If the distinction (1 or 0) is a bit artificial, I will leave in the middle. Let’s just say the book focuses on one end, the loonshots.

Here are some ingredients/concepts from the book:

  • False Fail: When a valid hypothesis yields a negative result in an experiment because of a flaw in the design of the experiment.
    • The example here was that statins didn’t go through the phase where they tested on rats, it turned out they were a bad analogy for a human body and only through someone trying it out again on chickens (and 3 more failures, something he mentions many times), did it move forward.
    • Another one I heard before, was the mention of social networks and why some people did invest in Facebook, they saw that the failure was in how earlier social networks executed their strategy, not in that the idea was bad. (see more here)
  • Phases of organisation: When an organisation is considered as a complex system, we can expect that system to exhibit phases and phase transitions — for instance, between a phase that encourages a focus on loonshots and a phase that encourages a focus on careers.
    • Here there is also a large section (to the end) on how companies can encourage loonshots, they mostly focus on preventing incentives (behavioural economics) for making a career.
    • One example is DARPA where someone works on a project (no chance to move up) for some years before rotating out again.
  • Separate artists and soldiers: Make sure that the people working on the loonshots (artists) don’t need to fulfil the same metrics as the people bringing in the immediate profit (soldiers).
    • Do love them equally (example used was how Steve Jobs only focussed on the artists)

This being said, a very interesting book, but maybe not very much applicable for myself (at this moment).

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