Loonshots | Safi Bahcall

Summary of: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries
By: Safi Bahcall


Welcome to the world of ‘Loonshots,’ where crazy ideas that seem unhinged ultimately have the power to change the world. In this book summary, you’ll learn about the importance of nurturing and investing in innovative, seemingly far-fetched ideas and how organizations often fail to follow through on them. Through compelling examples like Nokia and the Allies’ victory in World War II, we will explore the significance of structures that encourage innovation over narrow-mindedness. Delve into the secrets of successful organizations that thrived by balancing growth, risk-taking, and exploration of previously uncharted territories. The summary will provide insights on how you can cultivate a culture of possibility within your own organization, leading to transformative outcomes.

Innovating the Right Way

Innovation is key to success, but nurturing path-breaking ideas can be a challenge. Many organizations fail at nurturing loonshots – ideas that seem positively unhinged right up to the moment they turn the world on its head. While it is often argued that culture is the most critical factor for nurturing innovation, Nokia’s story shows that it’s not that simple. As organizations grow, employees’ stakes in projects decrease, and companies become franchise operations dedicated to protecting the parts of their businesses that are already successful. This conservative mindset breeds a lack of imagination and risk-taking, which leads to innovation falling by the wayside. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Organizations can put structures in place that encourage innovation and allow loonshots to thrive.

The Cost of Complacency

The Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany during World War II was a defining moment of the century. However, the outcome could have been different if prediction markets existed in 1939. The secret war race to develop effective weapons favoring the Axis Powers because the Allies lagged behind. Despite having the necessary know-how, Americans failed to nurture breakthroughs, falling behind in developing a new generation of submarines and planes. For example, the discovery of radar by two American radio scientists went unnoticed, even after it had the potential to revolutionize naval warfare and create an early warning system for enemy aircraft. The complacency of military planners proved fatal when Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese bombers on December 7, 1941, as their warning system was still being field-tested. The attack cost the lives of 2,403 servicemen and was a shocking lesson in the dangers of complacency. Vannevar Bush would pioneer a new approach to military planning, showing the importance of innovation and learning from past mistakes.

The Power of Innovation

The Office for Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was founded during WWII to explore seemingly bizarre ideas that the military was too conservative to pursue. The engineer Vannevar Bush established the department, comprised of non-military men, to nurture “loonshots” while letting generals focus on conventional weaponry. The OSRD commissioned 19 industrial labs and 32 academic institutions to carry out research on its behalf, recruiting an eccentric investment banker named Alfred Lee Loomis to help. Loomis assembled a team of engineers and physicists to develop a portable radar system using microwave that produced radar images so precise they could detect objects as small as submarine periscopes. This technology was valuable in solving America’s greatest logistical headache in the war against Germany by keeping supplies flowing across the Atlantic. The deployment of microwave radar marked the turning point of the Battle of the Atlantic.

The Power of Innovation

This book summary recounts the story of Theodore Vail, who transformed AT&T from a struggling telecommunications giant into a global leader through the power of fundamental research. By establishing a new department to pursue innovation, Vail and his team were able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and develop groundbreaking technologies. This story intersects with that of Vannevar Bush, who also understood the importance of nurturing innovation and recruited Vail’s colleague to help the US military during World War I. The book highlights the vital role of innovation in achieving success, both in business and on the battlefield.

The Bush-Vail Rules

Innovators cannot succeed alone, they need enablers to champion their work, which is where the Bush-Vail Rules come in:

Rule 1 – shelter the artists responsible for high-risk, early-stage ideas from soldiers responsible for managing successful parts of an organization. Embryonic ideas are often ignored by soldiers who prefer ready-to-launch products and projects.

Rule 2 – recognize the importance of both artists and soldiers, as seen in Steve Jobs’ approach at Apple. Both groups should be supported, as tensions between them can lead to failure.

Rule 3 – act as an intermediary between artists and soldiers to manage the transfer from creators to users. Bush and Vail’s approach was to not micromanage loonshot projects but to manage the weakest link in the chain that leads to breakthroughs.

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