I have started re-reading Safi Bachall’s book on Loonshots that I blogged about last week (here) and also thinking more broadly about taking time to focus and reflect on idea development.

This is particularly relevant as the last weeks have made me also reconsider whether I am taking enough time to create these spaces for reflection and innovation (truth: probably not that well).

My diary seems to fill up with meetings, public engagements, answering email queries, assisting colleagues with grant applications, trying to finish tasks for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, preparing for my grant, writing papers, and you name it.

Now, many of these things are actually something that I deeply enjoy doing, but the sheer magnitude of what I feel I need to achieve has been somewhat excessive.

Not a great outlook for doing creative deep thinking that is supposed to spur innovation especially at a time when I can feel many those ideas just within my grasp.

So this week here’s to thinking about creating more space to nurturing ideas, and how the quality of those ideas and their nurturing process can be improved.


The quality and types of loonshots

In Loonshots, the different types of loonshots are named P and S where P stands for Product and S for Strategy.

P-type loonshots are often drastic sudden new inventions that emerge and kick the competition out of the game because of their novelty and appeal to customers: the telephone, a new technology that allows services like Netflix enter the market.

S-type loonshots, small changes and shifts in strategy that result in breakthrough change or competitive advantage, are much harder to spot than P-types because “they are so often masked by the complex behaviours of buyers, sellers and markets”(p. 67).

S-types take much longer to develop: for example, it took Walmart three decades to achieve its leading position in the retail market; not a quick aggressive campaign but hard work with a new strategy over time.

For companies to succeed, it is crucial that they foster both kinds of loonshots, both products and strategies, because focusing on only highly visible breakthrough products might lead the company to miss what is actually changing in the market.

What is interesting to me is that many of the S-type loonshots (a strategy that people will never make money from but then it does) can be also small but have great impact in an individual’s life.

Take for instance the personal branding guru, Dorie Clark, and her book “Stand Out: How to find your breakthrough idea and build a following around it”.

Pretty much every story in that book is about creating a personal brand and finding a niche that others have overlooked, where the individual’s persistence on an idea pays off.

In many ways, these are small S-loonshots that help that individual to build a platform over time, and transform a life.


See new things, talk to new people

Breakthrough ideas, like loonshots, don’t just randomly happen.

While leadership within organisations clearly plays a role and whether supportive structures are put in place to help individuals and teams to keep developing and believing in ideas, ideas are created by often unseen combinations of knowledge, experience and skills.

Companies that are serious about innovation should look for loonshot individuals; people outside the common expertise than what is usually available at the company.

In Dorie’s book there is a mention of luck and the role it plays in finding and taking time to find new insights:

making time for meeting people with different expertise and experiences, attending events outside of your own expertise and networks, and be open for hearing about different ways of thinking and being.

This is for example exactly what happened to Richard Feynman who developed some of his breakthrough ideas by attending a lecture outside of his experience that helped him to formulate some of the theories he had been working on.

A similar call for embracing unique combinations comes from Harvard Business Review article on “Bring your Breakthrough ideas to life” where unexpected combinations and out of field expertise are actually noted as some of the key steps in producing innovative ideas.

Finding breakthrough ideas demands broader perspectives and thinking:

“Organisations may ask, “What if we no longer did what we do now”, – not necessarily because they intend to abandon current activities but as a way to envision connections between existing strengths and new opportunities”(p. 109).

This to me just solidifies the need for each of us to develop much broader expertise, read outside of our main core area of expertise, and talk to others from other disciplines and organisations as to how they are tackling some of the big issues.


Keeping your loonshot alive is not luck but hard work

When we look at many of the examples of successful people with big ideas, one thing that is utterly clear is that big ideas thrive and survive (although they might die a few times) because of hard work.

In our fast-paced society and with “lose five kilos in two weeks with this quick diet” and similar offerings, we have grown accustomed to getting results relatively quickly.

But what all of the management and leadership books agree on is that there is no substitute for hard work, for putting in the hours and actually doing what you need to do to support and develop your ideas.

Processes like building a brand or developing a breakthrough product are rarely fast but require dedicated persistence in keeping believing in the ideas while also doing the legwork to making it happen.

Now, there are different ways to do that and an endless list of top books, articles and podcasts on how to be successful in pretty much any aspect of your life.

But the key is that nurturing crazy ideas and creating space for those to develop is also hard work precisely because when ideas are developed the first time, they are insanely fragile:

“ failing to understand the surprising fragitility of the loonshot- assuming that the best ideas will blast through barriers, fuelled by the power of their brilliance- can be a very expensive mistake to make”(p. 46).

This is exactly why the role of deep thinking and taking time for reflection are crucial, not only in focusing on the idea at hand but also building protective structures (time management, task  setting, prioritisation) to make sure that the ideas can be nurtured.


Innovation and insights live outside of your email box

Just exposing your mind to new ideas is not enough to track down big ideas and to truly embrace innovation.

Our modern hectic world makes sure of it that most of us are incapable nowadays to spend even fifteen minutes during the work day to take designated time to reflect on our ideas.

The email box is pinging every few minutes or you check your work email way too often; new demands come in and you struggle answering the first when you already have five other requests waiting.

Time pressure decreases our ability to think creatively and puts our brain into fight or flight mode where we are so focused on completing our tasks that the stress does not support or even often allow more creative thinking to take place.

Yet, as Dorie points out, creating space for thinking is one of the key things that is crucial for innovative insights:

“Creating the space for quiet thought and self-care might seem unproductive, but giving yourself room to think may be your greatest competitive advantage in an increasingly frenzied world. While everyone else is reacting, you can make thoughtful, considered decisions. While everyone else is chasing the latest fad, you can look at the big picture and see where the future is going” (p. 178).

This is why in many of the loonshot examples, the people doing the innovating are almost barricaded into their labs and offices in an environment where they can take the necessary time to work with focus on the idea.

This is similar to Morten Hansen’s “Do less, then Obsess” principle for doing highly impactful and successful work where leaders work less hours but are totally immersed in the work that they do.

In Loonshots, Safi distils this further into the great 3: spirit, relationships and time.

Identifying your “noble purpose”, fostering the relationships that sustain you, and understanding that of all the items that you juggle, which balls in the air “are made of rubber and which are made of glass” (p. 279).

Creating spaces for reflexion enables you to identify when you are overcommitting and over-prioritising particular things, people or activities that take away your focus.


Lessons for climate adaptation 

So how does creating time for reflective thinking show up in a field like climate change adaptation?

The same broad principles apply but more importantly it is about fostering the ability to reflect on the adaptation process, its planning and implementation, and using those insights to build in a more robust adaptation science and practice.

This is where reflective thinking is crucial as is also a system mindset that analyses not only the outcomes but the actual decision process as to which decisions where made, why, and the array of factors influencing those decisions.

This is why we need for example more focus on implementation case stories from the field, what has been going well, what happened when adaptation actions, policies and programs were implemented, and what can we learn from this process.

This will be challenging in particular for climate adaptation as many implementation projects are often funded with external money, and the failures in implementation don’t bring good publicity.

Yet, investigating both failures and successes is critical in order for any learning to occur.

Both are often elusive to define but taking time to create spaces for reflection can also lead to breakthrough loonshots in how we adapt to climate change.