March 19, 2019

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries – with Safi Bahcall

For this episode of The Innovation Engine, we’ll be looking at “loonshots” and how to nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases, and transform industries. Among the topics we’ll discuss are why structure eats culture for breakfast, how and why phase transitions make the perfect environment for innovation to flourish, and the difference between P-type and S-type Loonshots.

Safi Bahcall joins us for this episode to talk those topics and more. Safi is the author of the just-published book Loonshots. The book has already received praise from many corners, including Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kanehman, one of the central figures in Michael Lewis’ 2017 book The Undoing Project. Kanehman says of Loonshots, “This book has everything: new ideas, bold insights, entertaining history and convincing analysis. Not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand how ideas change the world.” The Washington Post named Loonshots one of 10 Leadership Books to Watch in 2019, and Business Insider called it one of the 14 Books Everyone will be Reading this Year.

Safi received his BA, summa cum laude in physics from Harvard and his PhD from Stanford. After working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, he co-founded Synta Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company developing new drugs for cancer, and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, he was named Ernst and Young’s New England Biotech Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Working Group on the Future of National Research.


You can tune in to the full episode below.


Culture tends to get an awful lot of attention in management books, but Safi is a believer that small changes in structure are what’s really necessary to drive change in groups. But why?

  • Safi illustrates the dynamics at play with a glass of water: if there is a cup of water in front of you, you can stick your finger into it and swirl it around. That’s always true, until you turn down the temperature. All of a sudden, the behavior of those molecules will completely change because you can’t stick your fingers through it. It becomes totally rigid.
  • “So, the behavior completely changed. But why? There was no lead CEO molecule with a bullhorn,” he says. “There’s no sort of manual on culture. There’s something that causes the dynamic of those molecules to change. And that’s a small change in temperature. So, you can think of the temperature as elements of structure.”
  • When you are sitting with real people, and real teams, and real companies, what does that translate into? “It’s certain elements of how we design our organization, the kind of incentives we put in place for our people. Which do they care more about? The success of the project or getting promoted? There’s a competition between those two things. And whenever you have a competition between two things, that’s when you get a phase transition.”

Safi shares many examples to bolster his points, including how the invention of radar, a prototypical loonshot, helped turn the tide of the World War II.

  • It’s easy to forget, Safi says, that things didn’t look great for the Allies through much of the war. The German army was just technologically superior, and they were winning. But Vannevar Bush was the Dean of Engineering at MIT during WWII, and he understood this concept that structure eats culture for breakfast. He had a conversation with FDR that probably changed the course of the war, Safi says, and he convinced FDR to create an organization where innovation could thrive. He didn’t want to change the structure of the military – the rigid structure was necessary to fight the war – but he knew they needed a less rigidly structured organization to come up with new ideas.
  • Out of that came the first two Bush-Vale Rule: One, separate your artists and your soldiers. Two, manage transfer, not the technology.
  • “The genius entrepreneur building a great company, or creating these great inventions, on the back of his or her ideas is really a myth,” Safi says. “The companies that have been most successful, the leaders that have been most successful, manage more like a gardener. They’re taking care of the balance between these two groups.”

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About The Innovation Engine

Since 2014, 3Pillar has published The Innovation Engine, a podcast that sees a wide range of innovation experts come on to discuss topics that include technology, leadership, and company culture. You can download and subscribe to The Innovation Engine on Apple Podcasts. You can also tune in via the podcast’s home on Spotify to listen online, via Android or iOS, or on any device supporting a mobile browser.