Loonshots: A business book with equations that’s also a good read

The Irish Times
By Richard Gillis

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

Safi Bahcall’s latest work focuses on ideas that were first widely dismissed or ridiculed

Scientists are experts in failure. It’s what they do most of the time. Before they see the light of day, ideas with the potential to save lives or otherwise change the world for the better must first withstand the rigour of the scientific method – observe, measure, hypothesise and test. Depending on the subject matter, this process can take years, even decades.

Imagine chasing an idea for that long only to uncover a fatal flaw or to discover it doesn’t stand up to the hopes it once inspired? What if the idea wasn’t the next big tech disruption, but a cure for cancer? How would that feel?

Safi Bahcall’s career has taken place in this space, where the dreams of scientific innovation touches the world outside the laboratory. This informs his views on the subject of innovation: Why some ideas succeed, change lives, become famous and make their creators rich, while others fail to move beyond the early trial stages of development.

Bahcall’s well qualified to tackle these questions, armed with a CV that mixes hard science and real-world business experience. He received his PhD in Physics from Stanford University before working as a consultant for McKinsey, co-founding a biotechnology company specialising and developing new drugs for cancer. In 2008 he was named Ernst and Young’s New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year and three years later worked with former US president Barack Obama’s Council of Science Advisors on the future of national research.

His new book Loonshots focuses on ideas that were first widely dismissed or ridiculed but which recovered to become paradigm shifting innovations. These range from the discovery of Insulin and the development of long range ballistic missiles through to the James Bond and Star Wars film franchises.

One characteristic shared by the creators of these ideas is resilience, a trait that has become underrated by both sides of the science and business divide as they pursue the new, new thing.

“The culture of Silicon Valley and much of the current business literature promotes the notion of ‘fail fast and pivot’”, says Bahcall. “But that is often the absolute opposite of what you need to do”.

'Many of the people we talk about now as heroes were once derided as being idiots'

He rejects the revisionist history surrounding many of Big Tech’s most famous names, which come full of stories of lone inventors and their lightbulb moments. This narrative sees the central genius – insert the name of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Musk here – who immediately draws billions in venture capital funding from a lovestruck investment community. It’s a nice story, but is just not true, says Bahcall: “Many of the people we talk about now as heroes were once derided as being idiots, sometimes for many years.”

Bahcall’s book tells many such stories of premature rejection, examples of what he calls “false fails”, where the creator was encouraged to give up too early, not because the idea was wrong but because the execution failed. The result looks the same – failure – and “everybody walks away”. But some failures are useful.

He recalls meeting Sir James Black, a renowned “drug chaser”, the term used to describe scientists involved in the discovery of new treatments. Black’s advice to Bahcall permeates the book: “It’s not a good drug unless it’s been killed three times.” The failure thing again.

The familiar term “moonshot” came from the space race, translating to a big audacious goal or destination. A Loonshot, as defined by Bahcall, is an idea that’s not just big, it seems mad to even try. These rarely arrive fully formed, instead they are disregarded until they are championed by someone with the institutional clout or charisma to get things done. These two roles – thinking of the idea and getting it made at scale – are fundamentally different. Bahcall’s book divides them in to two distinct groups, artists and soldiers.

How these two groups of people coalesce around innovation is the main theme of the book, and it’s as this point that a bit of scientific knowledge can help, says Bahcall, whose parents were both astro-physicists. Specifically, the promise of Loonshots is to learn what physics tells us about the behaviour of groups, with the assumption that this knowledge can help companies become better at turning mad ideas in to usable products.

Companies, he says, tend to fall in to two groups. “There are the big franchises who want a constant flow of new ideas and are frustrated when this doesn’t happen. And there are the smaller, younger companies who have grown up around one particular innovation, and want to stop ossifying and find the next one.” His advice is to stop seeing this as a cultural issue and think instead of structure.

“‘There’s so much noise about business culture,” he says. By contrast, Bahcall’s argument is that there’s something at the core of how large groups of people behave that we don’t understand. The volumes of fashionable business and social science literature is wedded to the to the cliché’s of “winning cultures” and “inspirational leaders”. The usual excuses for failure centre on scale: Entrepreneurs are seen as agile and dynamic risk takers, who then become risk averse and conservative within a larger bureaucratic organisation.

But this change in behaviour – from radical to conservative – is similar to the “phase transitions”, a concept borrowed from molecular physics. “Everything you need to know is in the bathtub,” he writes in Loonshots. When the temperature is lowered, there is a moment when water turns from liquid to solid ice. “The same molecule behaves like a liquid in one context and a rigid solid in another. Why? How do molecules know to suddenly change their behaviour?.”

The physicist Phil Anderson won a Nobel Prize for finding the answer, which can be summarised as, “More is different”. The behaviour of the individual molecule changes, and it’s pointless analysing one molecule of water, or one electron in a metal in order to explain the collective. They are new: phases of matter.

Something similar happens in teams and companies says Bahcall. “There’s no way to analyse the behaviour of any individual and explain the group.” Being good at turning innovation in to a successful business, or franchises as he refers to them, is fundamentally different from dreaming up “Loonshots”. They work differently, and respond to different incentives. They are different phases of organisational behaviour and no group can do both at the same time, just as a molecule can’t be simultaneously fluid and solid.

“But there’s an exception,” he writes in his book, “when the water in the bathtub is at exactly 32 degrees Fahrenheit, pockets of ice coexist with pools of liquid’. That is the edge of a phase transition from one state to another and it’s where the magic happens.

'The creative should not be 100 per cent artist and 0 per cent soldier, or vice versa'

Extend the metaphor to a business setting and the edge is the most critical element in the life of innovative new ideas. The problem of transitioning from artist to soldier can be organisational or personal.

But dividing people into creative and non-creative work groups – a practice common to advertising and other forms of business – leads to a self-fulfilling prophesy, where people define their contribution too narrowly. Better to give scope to the creativity of the soldiers and to ask hard business questions of the artists.

“It is common in larger companies to divide the roles, where the creatives have the ideas and the soldiers are all about process, and are under pressure to deliver them on time and budget.”. “But the creative should not be 100 per cent artist and 0 per cent soldier, or vice versa. That’s a recipe for disaster.” Far better he says, to have an 80:20 ratio built in to the job. “The ‘suits’ should be allowed to put on the artist hat and be encouraged to have crazy ideas every now and then. We all know people who have a predisposition for process and tight deadlines. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make a creative contribution.”

Time spent with Safi Bahcall is a reminder of the divide between science and the people who tend to rise to the top of businesses. “We live in separate, specialised worlds. But there’s an appetite to bridge the silos.” “The Venn Diagram of people running businesses with a science background is tiny. I looked for books that combined elements of physics and business,” says Bahcall. “And there were exactly zero.”

Who’d think a business book with scientific equations could also be an entertaining read? That’s a Loonshot all his own.

Safi Bahcall
Business
Loonshots