An image of the Milky Way. (Courtesy of Picography)
In September 1922, Leo Young and Hoyt Taylor set up a radio transmitter on the edge of the US Naval Air Station outside Washington, D.C.
The pair were testing out whether high-frequency radio could help ships communicate, but instead they accidentally discovered a new way to detect enemy ships on the water. In a letter to their higher-ups, Young and Taylor laid out a method that would become known as the first proposal for using radar in wartime.
But the idea got shelved.
Despite stumbling upon the technology again years later — this time, with air traffic — the Navy didn’t assign anyone to investigate its potential full-time for nearly two decades after Young and Taylor first mentioned it.
This is a classic example of what author Safi Bahcall calls a “loonshot,” which in his book of the same title he defines as “a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.”
All of this begs the question, how do we create a world in which the crazy ideas get a chance to prove themselves before we dismiss them for being too, well, crazy?
Bahcall outlines the rules in “Loonshots,” naming them for Vannevar Bush, who spearheaded American technological development and innovation through World War II, and Theodore Vail, who oversaw the development of the Bell Telephone Laboratories.
The key to becoming an “engineer of serendipity” is to create a space where the crazy ideas get a chance.
Here’s how you do it:
- Separate the phases: Bahcall calls the people who create those wild ideas “artists,” the team members who are best at making your organization function smoothly “soldiers.” The first step is to separate these groups. It gives ideas, which can be messy and fragile in their early stages, room to grow, and it gets them out of the way of the people who need to keep the ship afloat. And both need the tools — and breathing room — to get their jobs done.
- Create dynamic equilibrium: Neither the artists nor the soldiers can feel left out, so make sure both groups get the respect and time they need. But this doesn’t mean they don’t communicate with each other. In fact, the artists can’t dream up ways to problem-solve without having a clear idea of what the soldiers face day-to-day. They need fluid communication, and someone who can be a champion for each project.
- Spread a system mindset: It’s not enough to look into what happens when something fails. You also need to look into the decisions that resulted in failure. A system mindset, Bahcall writes, “means carefully examining the quality of decisions, not just the quality of outcomes.” Equally important: Investigating why something was successful.
- Raise the magic number: At a certain size, the internal work politics of an organization become more important to staffer growth than the projects they produce and work on. That size, Bahcall writes, is the “magic number,” and it’s important to make sure that number can get higher and higher as an organization grows so loonshots don’t begin to feel too risky to take on. Examples of how to do this include reducing the value of office politics, using non-financial rewards and matching the right employees with the right projects.
We’ll talk more about the Bush-Vail rules during SURGE Growth when Safi Bahcall speaks during one of our keynote sessions. If you’re ready to get started now, you can buy his book and start to think up questions for our community chat during SURGE Growth. Register now — it’s free! — if you haven’t already.