In Loonshots, Safi Bahcall makes a compelling case that:
The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.
Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.
There are practical rules any organization can follow to nurture loonshots faster and better.
The book is entertaining read, charting stories of loonshots and radical change from the scientific revolution, military R&D from World War I through World War II and modern-day DARPA, and companies in biotech (Bahcall’s bread and butter) and other industries.
Out of these stories, Bahcall extracts rules and guidelines that organizations can follow to nurture crazy, world-changing ideas. He calls them the “Bush-Vail rules”, after Vannevar Bush and Theodore Newton Vail. Bush created and led the new US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), through which almost all US military R&D was channeled during World War II, and also pushed for the creation of the National Science Foundation and for a lot more government funding of R&D in general. Vail lead AT&T labs during 1885-1889 and 1907-1919 and greatly grew the utility of the service through pioneering research and development.
Let’s take a look at those rules.