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Loonshots

How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

By Safi Bahcall
15-minute read
Audio available
Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

Loonshots (2019) explores a subject that’s as important to the success of the US military as it is to companies duking it out on the metaphorical battlefield: innovation. Drawing on a host of illuminating historical examples, Safi Bahcall shows that path-breaking discoveries and inventions aren’t the product of isolated geniuses plowing their lonely furrows but rather a result of organizational structures which foster out-of-the-box thinking.

  • Tinkerers with an idea so crazy it might just work
  • Managers struggling to keep their companies ahead of the curve
  • Anyone who’s ever wondered how the Allies won World War Two

Safi Bahcall is a physicist and bioentrepreneur. He received his PhD from Stanford in 1995 and continued his academic career at UC Berkeley as a Miller Fellow in physics. After a three-year stint at the consultancy firm McKinsey, he cofounded Synta Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company specializing in the development of new drugs to treat cancer. Loonshots, Bahcall’s first book, has been heralded a a must-read title by the Washington Post, Inc and Business Insider.

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Loonshots

How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

By Safi Bahcall
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall
Synopsis

Loonshots (2019) explores a subject that’s as important to the success of the US military as it is to companies duking it out on the metaphorical battlefield: innovation. Drawing on a host of illuminating historical examples, Safi Bahcall shows that path-breaking discoveries and inventions aren’t the product of isolated geniuses plowing their lonely furrows but rather a result of organizational structures which foster out-of-the-box thinking.

Key idea 1 of 9

Innovation is a key part of organizational success, and it needs to be carefully nurtured.

Innovation takes time, money and work. The greatest ideas fail a thousand times before they succeed. But here’s the rub: organizations often get cold feet before path-breaking projects ever get off the ground. What could have been the next great thing ends up as little more than a pipe dream. In other words, they fail at nurturing loonshots – ideas that seem positively unhinged right up to the moment they turn the world on its head.

So what’s the right way to foster innovation? Well, it’s sometimes argued that it comes down to culture – the informal rules governing organizational life. There’s a problem with that explanation though: it’s wrong. Take Nokia. The Finnish multinational enjoyed a three-decade hot streak between the 1970s and the early 2000s. Its innovations included the world’s first cellular network, car phone, all-network analog phone and the GSM phone, making it one of Europe’s most profitable businesses.

Experts attributed the company’s success to its culture. Magazines like Businessweek ran features on Nokia’s egalitarian ethos while the CEO put it down to the fact that employees were encouraged to have fun and think outside the box. Fast forward to 2004. Internally, nothing had changed. In fact, the engineers behind all those hits had just had another eureka moment: an internet-ready touchscreen phone with a state-of-the-art camera and an online app store to go with it. Nokia’s leadership shot the project down. Three years down the line, Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. The rest is history.

What went wrong? Well, Nokia’s structure had changed. That’s often part and parcel of growth. When organizations start out, employees have a high stake in success: if a small biotech firm produces a wonder drug, for example, everyone involved won’t just be incredibly rich – they’ll be heroes! Failure, on the other hand, means they’ll be out of a job. Perks like fancy titles and promotions don’t mean very much in such a free-flowing, high-stakes environment.

As organizations grow, that changes. Those bonuses become ever more attractive, and individuals’ stakes in projects decrease. That breeds a conservative mind-set, and companies become franchise operations dedicated to protecting the parts of their businesses which are already successful. The outcome? Innovation falls by the wayside as decision makers come to view loonshots like Nokia’s proto-iPhone as intolerably risky. But that isn’t a law of nature – organizations can put structures in place that encourage innovation. Let’s see how.

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