As a professional innovation practitioner, consultant, and educator, I’m always extremely dubious about books that profess to tell people how to do innovation. I’ve worked in industry and government as an innovator and as someone trying to help others create new capabilities that are desperately needed, and the only thing that organizations do well with innovation is murder it.
So Loonshots, by Safi Bahcall, languished on my nightstand for months until a colleague I respect recommended it as being worthy. At the same time, a manager I’ve worked with for years began singing its praises and bought a copy for his leadership team. That wasn’t a good sign; this manager has done a lot to kill innovation (in Loonshots terms, he’s a classic Soldier). Innovators inside my current organization call themselves “unicorns” because they are rare, most people believe they are mythological, and they remain hidden deep in the forest because people hunt them for their magic blood. They’ve referred to this manager and others like him as “paper unicorns” because these folks read the literature and style themselves innovators, but it doesn’t go any deeper than the surface.
Thus, his enthusiasm colored my expectations even further; I figured the book would be innovation theater.
It is not.
Instead, it’s a systems approach to restructuring. It’s more or less the same message that consultants like myself, Steve Blank, Steve Weinstein, and BMNT have been advocating for years, but framed in physics terms which somehow seem to provide a metaphor that works for management types. While these guys have never come to a single workshop or talk or read a single blog post from any of us, they not only read Loonshots, they invited Bahcall to come in and give a talk, which they ordered their offices to attend.
It was much more broadly attended than they expected; I don’t think they knew that a robust underground network of “unicorns” exists in their organization (and has been trying to tell them the stuff that’s in Loonshots for years).
I’ve worked directly for a particular manager for a few years. He personally launched one new capability prior to that, so several innovation programs got put under him, which he’s pretty much ignored completely. Earlier this year he insisted that we run an idea competition; I attempted to push back, or at least restructure it into something that wouldn’t both fail and piss people off, but the management levels between me and him kept us apart; it’s more important to let the boss do what he wants than to succeed. (Bahcall clarifies this as “stake vs. rank” tension and he’s spot-on).
So imagine my amusement when I was invited to dine with this boss, his management team, and Bahcall. I don’t want to say it was a complete put-on; I truly believe that the Soldiers at the table truly believe they are Artists, or that they can be the next Vannevar Bush. Sure, the conversation was frustrating as hell (especially when the boss had his assistant taking notes on Bahcall’s comments, all of which reiterated existing programs that I run), but thanks to Loonshots I now not only have the right language to use with this guy, but also I know that he’s got some familiarity with the basic concepts, so I don’t have to use up my limited facetime with him laying the groundwork.
Achieving phase separation, dynamic equilibrium, and an appropriate incentive structure in this organization has proven to be a loonshot of its own. We’re 10 years in to the effort now, and it’s been killed a few times, but maybe, just maybe, we can make some good progress now.
If not, if this proves to be another example of corporate hypocrisy, then I have clear evidence that it’s time for me to move on, because the organization will have committed itself to extinction.