Book of the Week 9: Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

2nd March, 2020

Loonshots is a book about “how to nurture the crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries” – and I should admit right off the bat that I haven’t had a chance to finish it yet, despite wanting to.

The book has a lot of strengths – some really nice accounts of the development of radar during the war, the creation of Arpa, Pixar, etc. These are case studies that you might have encountered before but the stories feel crisp and lively. Well worth reading for the potted histories alone, in fact.

I wish Bahcall had been less keen to coin new labels: P-type loonshots,  S-type loonshots, the “invisible axe” and the “Moses trap”. A few are fine, but as I skimmed ahead to the chapter about Arpa (which was excellent) I was surrounded by these new terms that I didn’t understand. By the way, P-type loonshots are bold product innovations. S-type loonshots are bold strategy innovations. Not sure why we don’t call them “product loonshots” and “strategy loonshots”.

Also still chewing over the effort to tie everything to phase transition (ice melting, water freezing). Bahcall is pointing to the fact that different organisations behave in different ways: a small start-up has a different culture to a large company; a military research outfit doesn’t act like an infantry regiment. But to get innovative ideas to work, you need both, and you need to manage the transfer of ideas between small and large, or blue-sky and front-line. As a metaphor, fine; but Bahcall seemed to feel it was more than a mere metaphor. Perhaps when I’ve had a chance to think about it some more, I’ll understand.

I wouldn’t be writing this review if I didn’t like the book, I should say. Despite the frustrations, there’s so much interesting material in it that I’m going to need to try again, cover to cover this time.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’s Amazon

Catch up on the first season of my podcast “Cautionary Tales” [Apple] [Spotify] [Stitcher]

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