Safi Bahcall: How to Encourage Innovation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Loonshots" by Safi Bahcall. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can companies encourage innovative thinking? What can you, as a leader, do to inspire creative ideation that translates into a useful innovation?

According to Safi Bahcall, the author of Loonshots, companies focused on innovation should separate innovators from implementers. This is because innovation tends to occur in a climate that’s highly unstructured. Successful implementation, however, needs order and structure.

Here’s how to encourage innovation in your organization.

Separate Innovators and Implementers

In his book Loonshots, Safi Bahcall explains how to encourage innovation within an organization. The key, he says, is to separate innovators and implementers, especially in the early, vulnerable stages of the innovation cycle. Bahcall explains that in the case of the OSRD, Bush knew that the military itself was (and needed to be) rigidly structured and that this structure would tend to quash new ideas. His solution was to assemble a group of scientists and engineers to work independently. 

(Shortform note: Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, also stresses the importance of sheltering creative ideas while they are new. Catmull says that creative ideas are messy and incomplete when they start out and that leaders should focus on the ideas’ strengths rather than their weaknesses.)

Part of the reason to separate innovators and implementers is that to function effectively, each group requires a different set of tools, techniques, and group dynamics. Bahcall notes that Bush’s scientific team could not do their creative work if they were subjected to military structure or oversight. They needed to be able to take creative risks without fear of failure or censure. (Shortform note: Likewise, because some people are good at innovation and others are good at implementation, entrepreneur and startup adviser Eric Ries suggests moving projects from one team to another over their life cycles rather than keeping the same team with a product throughout.)

At the same time, in the middle of a war, the military needed to be free to focus on structure, strategy, and logistics, not on coming up with new ideas. Separating the groups protected the loonshot ideas when they were in their fragile infancy, and this separation also insulated the military from any failures or mistakes the scientists made. (Shortform note: Ries and Jim Collins similarly suggest that companies sandbox their innovation teams to prevent damage to the main business, or else innovate in small doses to make sure that new ideas are beneficial before fully implementing them.)

Bahcall also points out that Bush deeply respected both the scientists and the military and argues that all organizations should value their innovation teams and implementation teams equally. (Shortform note: Pixar’s Catmull also stresses the need for balance, pointing out that if you let any one team or department get everything they want, you are likely to damage your product when, for example, the creative team blows its budget or the marketing team waters down the product.)

Put Boundaries on Your Innovators

When separating innovators from implementers, it might be beneficial to place some boundaries on the innovative group to guide their work. 

For example, Catmull recommends setting clear time and budgetary limits on any given project. He says that not only will these limits encourage creators to use their resources efficiently, but that they will also foster greater creativity by forcing innovators to find ways to work within their guidelines. 

Catmull also recommends having your innovation team work on small experimental projects that are designed to try out new ideas without necessarily worrying about the bottom line. For Pixar, these projects are short films created by small teams. These short films give participants experience working in multiple phases of production, allow teams to work through new technical or creative problems, and pose no real risk to Pixar if they fail. 

Encourage Innovators and Implementers to Talk

Bahcall points out that in order for innovation to be worthwhile, it needs to have a practical application. But when you separate innovation from implementation, you run the risk that your innovative group might lose touch with the practical implications of their work. Therefore, Bahcall says you must maintain a constant dialogue between innovators and implementers. 

(Shortform note: Marty Cagan explores this idea in more detail in his discussion of the four risks a company must assess when developing a new product. In Inspired, he says that a successful product needs to: have a clear market value, be understandable to users, be feasible to produce, and fit into a business’s larger strategy. As we’ll see, the mutual exchange Bahcall suggests revolves around these risks.)

Bahcall points out that during World War II, as a general rule, the military was hesitant to try new technologies. Therefore, one of Bush’s jobs as head of OSRD was to sell the military on the benefits of his team’s creations and push them to try new things. (Shortform note: In Cagan’s terms, Bush needed to convince military leaders that his new technologies had a clear purpose and benefit to their soldiers and that the technologies would advance the US’s tactical and strategic goals).

On the other hand, Bush also had to bring feedback from the military to his innovation team. For example, when pilots tried the first versions of in-aircraft radar, they found them too complicated to use during combat—ease of use during a dogfight hadn’t occurred to the engineers in the labs. With the pilots’ feedback, OSRD’s innovators developed more user-friendly displays and controls which the pilots then adopted. (Shortform note: In Cagan’s terms, even after OSRD’s engineers found a feasible way to build radar small enough to fit in an airplane, in-aircraft radar was not a viable product until they made it more understandable to its intended users.)

Rule 2 for Small Teams

Rule 2, as Bahcall explains it, assumes an organization that is big enough and established enough to have completely separate innovators and implementers. But what about startups, which might be small enough that everyone is involved in all aspects of the business at first? In these cases, it’s still true that innovative ideas need to have some kind of practical application, but the idea of mutual exchange between two specialized groups doesn’t make sense.

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries tackles this and similar problems. Ries suggests starting out with a build-measure-learn approach. To use this approach, start with a hypothesis about what your customers want or need from your business. Then, build the minimal product or service needed to test your hypothesis. The point is to expose your intended customer to your intended product or service and collect data. Finally, you analyze that data to refine your product idea and your strategy. 

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen suggests that a similar process can help businesses figure out how to respond to innovations that might interrupt their market. In the absence of market research, he advises that businesses focus on learning rather than execution.
Safi Bahcall: How to Encourage Innovation

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Safi Bahcall's "Loonshots" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Loonshots summary :

  • How some of the world's biggest inventions started as "loonshots," or crazy ideas
  • The four rules for nurturing a loonshot
  • How organizations can keep innovating no matter how big they grow

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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