How does a book by a second-generation physicist on the science of phase transition become a Wall Street Journal best seller, endorsed as a top business book by such familiar names as Malcolm Gladwell and Dan Pink? By presenting the simple proposition that group behavior can be transformed by small changes in structure rather than culture.
In his first book Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, physicist and biotech entrepreneur Safi Bahcall delivers a fascinating study on how the principles of phase transition in physics can be applied to human behavior in organizations.
Just as a small increase in temperature can change the state of rigid ice into flowing water, the author argues, equally small changes in organizational structure can transform “crystalline” companies into powerful innovation engines. The objective is not a “liquid” state of free-flowing but undisciplined ideas. What is needed is a delicate balance of co-habitation where “two phases [ice and water] can co-exist.”.
The original moonshots of the 1950’s and 1960’s were highly ambitious and ridiculously expensive goals that received global support because they were expected to have great significance. In contrast, Bahcall’s “Loonshots” are “neglected project[s], widely dismissed,” where the project champion is often ignored as being “unhinged.”
Bahcall offers the example of Nokia, the industrial conglomerate that at one point in the early 2000’s was selling “half the smart phones on the planet.” Driven by an unorthodox culture that promoted fun and the freedom to make mistakes, Nokia engineers proposed a new model of cellphone that looked remarkably like the still-to-be-launched iPhone.
The leadership team at Nokia decided the project was too far out of the box and shut it down, only to see the iPhone launched to global acclaim three years later. Within six years Nokia was out of the cellphone business and was worth a quarter trillion dollars less than at its peak.
How different would Nokia’s world be if that iPhone-style Loonshot had been nurtured and allowed to grow? It is this transformative potential, Bahcall argues, that demands constant attention to the Loonshot or “skunkworks” projects that often get dismissed in the name of mission clarity or fiscal stewardship.
The message of faster innovation and better implementation may not be new, but Bahcall’s brilliant use of comparative case studies – what James Bond and Lipitor have in common, for instance – make this a highly entertaining and applicable read. Both Bond and Lipitor started as highly speculative projects but quickly established themselves as highly lucrative franchises. Once that phase transition was achieved, updates to each version were much easier to sell “up the chain of command.”
Loonshots argues that structure can be just as powerful as culture in organizational transformation. Using a highly entertaining and insightful series of case studies, the author manages to make phase transition physics interesting and group behavior absolutely fascinating.