When I heard Safi Bahcall on Harvard Ideacast talking about his new book “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries”, there was no turning back.

A book about how to foster innovation and breakthrough ideas is simply a must have.

A loonshot is an innovation that essentially changes the world, our views of it and how we function as a society.

A loonshot is “a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged” (p. 270).

The majority of such breakthrough ideas, as Safi shows in the book, are based on science of emergence (how ideas develop) that means two things that most organisations are uncomfortable with:

  1. A loonshot has to die at least three  times before it really takes off, and
  2. It takes a very long time to transition from an ugly initial idea to a beautiful fully fledged innovation.

Yet, loonshots can be fostered when the right structures are in place, when there is a leader who is willing to let ideas to be nurtured.

The good news is that this book is full of examples of success and failure how to create these spaces but also what to do with the idea once you have it fully developed.


Why you need to separate your artists and soldiers

Innovation can be fostered with a specific focus on the structure of the organisation by creating spaces for both those who develop the ideas (artists) and for those who take the ideas to the market (soldiers).

Ideas need time, space and resources to develop and they are often fragile and ugly when they are first thought of, and are best looked after in “loonshot nurseries” especially in the beginning.

This is because “Loonshots flourish in loonshot nurseries, not in empires devoted to franchises” (p. 257).

Loonshot nurseries are spaces for your artists, who have the mindset, skills and capacities to engage in original thinking and innovation.

These people are your winning card in any industry but it is not enough just to employ the brightest minds, and ask them to excel.

Organisational structures need to also support their freedom and capabilities, provide time and space for exploring breakthrough technologies, ideas and products, and keep these ideas away from the public eye while they are developed.

But an idea cannot change the world if  people do not know about it.

Your other set of key people are the soldiers: the ones who know how to pitch these ideas, once fully fledged, to the markets and to the right audience in order to increase the uptake.

Just to be clear: soliders and artists are not two different camps in the organisation that divide and conquer but part of a process of dynamic equilibrium where both are needed and both support each other.


Understand the differences in the types of loonshots

But not all loonshots are the same.

There are two particular types that often rather rapidly change the world:

P loonshots are products or technologies that “will never work”.

A P loonshot (the product or technology) is a unique and original product that changes the way people think about for example about the universe and how it functions.

It produces a new idea that draws upon the past and current knowledge, and proposes a new and bold vision what our world is or could be like.

S loonshots are strategies or business models that “will never make any money”.

A S loonshot is a new way of doing something; tweaking an existing product in a manner that has not been thought of before, and also revolutionises the very industry that it targets.

What the loonshots share in particular is the common perception that both are not doable or in worst cases not even necessary.

But what Safi warns us against when it comes to loonshots is complacency:

complacency for taking everything granted, missing the innovative out of the box opportunities that then turn an industry upside down.

Innovation means constant learning and being open for ideas as they develop.

All too often companies and organisations decide how things are done, how they should be done, and how they could be done.

These organisational rules are often referred to as company culture, those unwritten rules as to how we do things around here.

But the key thing is that most organisations do not simply know or understand how to change the current structures that they have developed to embrace innovation.

Yet, what this book shows is that it can be done, and this is where the role of leadership comes in.


Leadership for innovation

There are profound lessons about the role that leaders and leadership plays in fostering ideas and innovation.

A great leader allows innovation to emerge, listens to his staff working on ideas and who can spot S-type loonshots emerging.

Each field, organisation and institution needs to keep an eye out on how the field is changing and what trends are emerging.

Just because you have succeeded in doing something in one way for a long time (e.g. faster, better, bigger products) does not mean that you will remain ahead.

Without these observations it is easy to settle for something in the market place that is already being undermined by a new idea or invention that changes how that market behaves.

A smart leader displays and owns also a system mindset for decision-making:

“System mindset means carefully examining the quality of decisions, not just the quality of outcomes” (p. 142).

This rang so true for me as someone who researches decision-making processes on climate adaptation where I am far more interested in the actual process rather than just tracking the outcome.

This is good news for organisations: owning a system mindset means focusing on the “why” of the organisation (how and why particular decisions have been made) and identifying how that process can be improved.


Climate Adaptation Nurseries

So what does this mean for climate adaptation and how we foster innovation?

First of all, I want an Adaptation Loonshot Nursery.

People keep talking about accelerators, incubators, and all of that.

Well, that’s now old school because for me, I can see the value, passion, and necessity of talking about loonshot nurseries as those spaces that allow ideas to emerge, and where innovation is treated with respect.

Adaptation is about changing our mindsets, challenging those principles that we hold dear about how adaptation works, and really trying to think in new ways how our world could, should and can adapt to impacts of climate change.

What are the most out there ideas about how for example island nations can adapt?

How could a circular economy become a circular household where you charge your electric car with the solar panel that also powers all your energy needs in the house?

No, wait, that’s already being planned and thought of.

So what are the next steps for adaptation?

Where is the innovation residing in what is being funded, how do we collectively learn from some of the already ongoing implementation failures, and how do we think big and bold?

But again it comes down for me as to how do we judge what is innovation?

For me, true innovation is when something that helps us to adapt better actually becomes mainstream and flows from the nursery to the real world in a way that truly makes a difference.

There are lots of ideas out there but not all of them will become loonshots that change the way we do things, think and live.

But perhaps what is most comforting about the book is the insight that

“The ability to innovate well is a collective behaviour” (p. 227).

It is something that can be learned and be nurtured given the right structures and incentives to do so.

It is impossible to capture all the insights of the book in one blog, and next week I will dwell further into the specifics on organisational structure and how to identify the point when innovation stops and how that can be managed.