Why do organizations pull the plug on many of their greatest ideas, before they have the chance to take root or prove their value? Safi Bahcall explains how innovation teams can make meaningful structural adjustments, to nurture what he calls loonshots.

It’s the way we reach the discoveries and inventions which will ultimately shape our world: many of them were loonshots first.

Loonshots? This is a term coined by second-generation physicist and biotech entrepreneur Safi Bahcall; a loonshot is an idea which aims high (like the moon) but also goes off-course, and when pitched to peers is said to contain more than a modicum of crazy.

Some of the world’s most successful business ideas have been loonshots.

Steve Jobs’ presentation of the radical Apple Macintosh was originally met with skepticism, and it was a similar story when Disney missed a big opportunity by passing up the first 3D animation film.

So why do people and organizations, despite their best intentions, routinely shoot down far-flung but great ideas?

There can be many trip-cables presented by innovators themselves as a unit, as individuals or by the core business through the need to drive guaranteed bottom-line: As we well know, cultivating fresh ideas and shepherding them into practical application is a tough process.

But what if those ideas never make it to implementation in the first place, because they are dismissed before they can develop enough to prove themselves viable?

Safi Bahcall credits adjusting organizational structures – that is, the incentives, systems, and designs which underpin culture – as the focal framework for fostering innovative proposals; in spite of, and especially, those proposals which can at first seem imperfect and discomfiting.

Let’s look into and summarize the characteristics of these structures, and how we can adjust them to help the trajectory of loonshots: what already exists? Why is it damaging? How can organizations nudge against and gradually redesign hierarchies and incentives to take the right risks?

Break rank to cultivate breakthroughs

Much of our organizational incentives are based around overcrowded linear hierarchies and personal politics. This means you find the ‘strongest’ players gaming against one another to knock their ‘opponents’ off the ladder by killing their loonshots.

Instead, it should be a case of people collaborating closely together to bring merit-worthy ideas from inception to validation.

Humans work best when they’re rewarded; we know this. But why are we incentivizing employees to climb the corporate ladder at the expense of their teammates, and the multiple great ideas which die before they can really grow into something groundbreaking?

For this, Safi advises innovators to focus on compensating idea champions based on taking the right risks, investing in their projects, and getting to successful and measurable outcomes – together with their teams.

Fail slow and stick at it

We’ve all heard ‘fail fast and pivot’ used as an unofficial mantra for the experimental organization, but this is a simplification of the ‘test-and-learn’ approach; a simplification which gives up too easily, and actually holds progress back rather than pushes it forward.

In fact, making an extended series of structured mistakes is a more realistic way to see loonshots from their inception through to their potential success. And this requires persistence – sometimes against the odds.

Safi explains several instances where the most important medical breakthroughs of the 20th century have been as a result of persistent, continuous trials – even in the face of industry scorn.

One of these, a drug to lower cholesterol, was successfully tested in the lab but then when trialed with beta mice and rats, did nothing. Years later, when most had abandoned hope of the trial succeeding, the scientist Akira Endo discovered that the reason the drug didn’t work on rats was that they didn’t contain the same form of cholesterol as humans. If Endo had not persisted with his research, this would have gone undiscovered. A ‘fail fast and pivot’ approach saw many giving up to ignore a breakthrough which would improve the health of 35 million people today in the United States:

“It’s important to persist through a number of these failures, and really spend the time to investigate failure if you want to achieve your goal” Safi explains in his talk with the Mack Institute.

But how can companies reconcile the idea of and need for risk, with the reality of the core business’s need to deliver hard-line results every quarter?

Learn the different languages of soldiers and artists

Simply put, the vocabulary used when it comes to either taking risks, or de-risking is very different.

Those who are operating on the front-lines to deliver business results – from marketing and sales to product development – will expect a leader to talk to them in QBRs, KPIs, and ROI.

Here, risk spells trouble: it means putting your business success on the firing line, and ‘de-risking’ a plan is a huge asset for any soldier operating in this environment.

To the people who are conjuring up bizarre new creations attached to the gleaming possibility of future creation and success – but without a guarantee, ‘risk’ is an exciting word which means opening up the possibilities for progress.

As Safi describes in the same talk, ‘if a leader says to an artist, “you really have no risk in your art,” that’s an incredible insult.’

This is about understanding the fine balancing act of creativity and stability – appreciating the value of both, and as a leader, knowing your audience and what the goal is of each equally important business faction.

Creating your own ecosystem of loonshots

Radically original ideas, or loonshots, are essential to the future success of organizations. But to really nurture the most surprising and brilliant of breakthroughs; to shape the future of business from the furthest corners of the human imagination, organizations need to recognize and understand the systems and languages which shape two very different business aspects.

Current organizational systems and management techniques are typically focused on efficiency and execution, which engender political hierarchy, personal incentives for fast results, and rewards for business ideas with minimum risk attached to them.

What we now must embrace is a small slice of the unknown; not by totally destroying and rebuilding the systems which drive businesses forward but by adjusting the incentives, processes, and languages they use, so that the messiness and inefficiency inherent in bringing innovative ideas to life is not reflexively rejected before potential success can even be explored.

In the Wall Street Journal’s review, ‘Loonshots: In Praise of Wild Ideas’, Safi reminds us that each successful drug needs to ‘die three deaths before it can live as a validated medicine.’

Perhaps in our endless pursuit of growth, driven by perpetual and short cycles of experimentation, data, and insights, we have forgotten about quieter harbingers of change – qualities like persistence, patience, and intuition, which are equally important.

To embrace these qualities, we must not only talk ‘changemaking’, ‘ideation’ and ‘design-thinking’ but actively tweak organizational design to cultivate unbridled creativity, so we can embrace that vexing uncertainty we instinctively fear and make sure we don’t miss out on any more  loonshots again.