Loonshots: How To Nurture The Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, And Transform Industries, by Safi Bahcall
In reading this book it became very obvious that the author was someone who had a high view of science and medicine, a far higher view than I have myself, and wants to make a point that the problems with institutions are not so much about culture but about structure, comparing institutions at certain sizes and conditions to compounds making phase transitions from liquid (where there is still the possibility of flow) to solid, where institutions are rigid in their thinking. By and large the author makes a great point that organizations and cultures that we have viewed as having missed technological advances have often noticed those advances but were unable to get their institutions to take action because of the political risk. Indeed, the author makes some very trenchant comments about the way that innovation is inversely related to the behavior that earns one political success, and that reducing corporate and institutional politics tends to increase the attractiveness of creativity and innovation, something I have noticed in my own experience is quite a major problem in many societies and institutions. In the author’s generally able hands, loonshots don’t come off as being that loony after all.
This book is about 300 pages and is divided into 3 parts, 9 chapters, and various other material. The author begins with a prologue and introduction and then moves on to the first part of the book on the engineers of serendipity (I), where the author discusses about the way that technological loonshots won World War II (1), the fragility of loonshots in medicine (2), and the two types of loonshots, ones based on technologies and ones based on systems (3). The author continues in this vein talking about the Moses trap where he makes some unnecessary labeling of powerful leaders as having a Moses complex that hinders innovation (4), and how the Moses trap can be escaped using the example of Pixar and Steve Jobs’ successful second act (5). The second part of the book looks at the science of sudden change (II) with chapters on phase transitions (6,7) and the importance of raising the magic number where innovation turns into politicized environments from 150 to a higher number through de-incentivizing political actions (8). Finally, the author concludes with the mother of all loonshoots in discussing the surprising superiority of Western Europe and its settler colonies in the modern era (9), before including a discussion about the distinction between loon shots and disruption, which can often be noticed only after the fact, as well as a couple of appendices on the Bush-Vail rules and an innovation equation.
I think I would have liked this book better had the author not joined many others in making fun of the Bible. I would also have appreciated the author have been less biased in favor of bioengineering, but given his background this bias is not particularly surprising. Even so, the author makes some very good points that institutions simply get too big for their own good and quash creativity over a large terrain unless there are smaller players around who are less risk adverse who can profitably nourish those ideas and see them through the difficult process of development and maturation until they are able to benefit the world and the people on it. Although size can certainly create economies of scale when it comes to franchises, it actively hinders the development of those oddball ideas that are thought of as useless or unprofitable. Furthermore, the author does a good job in explaining that organizations need to treat their artists and soldiers equally and not pit one group of people against another in an organization when it comes to playing favorites.