Thinking out loud 05: loonshots & roofshots

This weekend I read “Loonshots: How to nurture crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries” by Safi Bahcall and I really enjoyed it. It reminded me a lot of of “How to Fly A Horse” (HWTFA) by Kevin Ashton. However, while they’re basically about the same idea (where does “innovation” come from?) they’re also very different: Loonshots focuses on the transformative new ideas that are dismissed as utterly crazy, HWTFA is much more about how crazy ideas happen incrementally. 

In a nutshell, Loonshots talks about how you need to have phase separation of artists & soldiers — crazy ideas need their own environment for nurturing and growth. Leaders should focus on managing the transfer between the two environments. New movie studios and franchises need different leaders and structures to grow: the former nurtures artists and the latter needs soldiers that build the machine to franchise them. Managers need to manage the transfer between the two and need to love artists and soldiers equally since the franchise is needed to pay for the nursery.

How to fly a horse also focuses on how innovations happen but takes a different tack. “Thinking is like walking” is one of the main tenets . “Creating is ordinary” is the name of the first chapter. The book posits that “innovation” is more about starting and moving and creating while avoiding some fundamental “blocker” mistakes. Two chapters I really like focus on (1) instead of tearing ideas down by talking always ask “show me” - visualizing / low-fi prototyping helps to actually evaluate more crazy-sounding ideas: (2) the 3 most dangerous words in the english language are “Before I begin…” just begin! All of these suggestions imply just a pattern of behavior vs. corporate structure as the key.

Thrown into this mix of books I recently started reading “How Google Works” by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg. One of the ideas mentioned here is that there are moonshots and roofshots. Moonshots 10x while Roofshots 1.3–2x. The book posits that both are important… However, you can grow 10x through roofshots alone — if you do one or so a quarter in a few years you 10x. Roofshots are way easier to find so don’t underinvest in them… 

These are all different ideas on the same topic. They analyze similar companies and similar outcomes. What’s going on?

What I think HTFAH and Roofshots add is something that Loonshots misses (or at least doesn’t really focus on since I don’t think it fits the narrative arc) — a ton of growth and innovation can happen through roofshots which in aggregate and retrospect, look like loonshots. Tying this to HTFAH, the way that you do roofshots looks a lot like deduction and the scientific method / unblocked creative processes. Adding in some broader structural improvements described in these books and you can get a pretty good growth engine without any idea of Nobel Prize-generating caliber. This is not to say Loonshots isn’t right, just that it’s only a piece of the puzzle…

The narrative arc of best-selling books is treacherous. Survivor bias is rampant and the world is complicated. These books are all basically right at some level and also wrong in others and yet I really do have enjoy the stories.

Until next time