Loonshots Reviewed


  By Jim Johnson  

LoonshotsHow to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall. I like this book and give it 5 out of 5 butterflies. It is written well, and complex ideas are presented simply. Of course, one of the reasons I like the book is that Bahcall agrees with my premise that there is no such thing as disruptive technology (see my comments in the Café CHAOS Blog post “Disruptive Technology is Disturbing”). However, the major takeaway from the book is this: what you need to successfully pull off a loonshot is a good environment, a good sponsor, and a good team.

But wait: What is a loonshot? Bahcall describes it as “a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.” And what is a good environment for a loonshot? Bahcall suggest that loonshots are most likely to succeed when they’re championed by small teams that create flow.  Really, this is similar to the project environmental concept we outline in our current CHAOS Report and project environmental benchmark. Benchmarking your project environment provides insight into how well each aspect of that environment is performing, allowing you to discover what areas need improvement while helping you to develop a plan towards achieving those improvements. (You can get the latest CHAOS Report: Decision Latency Theory (2018) package in our store.)

As a perfect model of a project sponsor, Bahcall introduces Vannevar Bush, who created and ran the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) during World War II. OSRD was the prime organization for the development of radar—which was a major contributor to winning the war. For our part, at Standish Group, we have spent the past 25 years exploring the skills and habits of successful project sponsors—or what Bahcall calls “champions.” In our book and associated benchmark, The Good Sponsor, we lay out 10 principles and 50 skills you need to be a good project sponsor or champion. (You can get the book in our store. You can even get a mentored class on how to be a good project sponsor and develop good sponsor habits.) 

And how does Bahcall describe a good team? He likes to use the analogy of ice-to-water and water-to-ice to demonstrate what he calls “phase transitions.” Keeping teams on the edge of the phase, Bahcall believes, provides dynamic equilibrium.  From our research, we suggest that most successful teams are made up of emotionally mature individuals. In fact, we wrote a book (and a benchmark) called The Good Mate, which lays out 10 principles and 50 skills you need to be a good emotionally mature teammate. You can also find this book and benchmark in our store store

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Subject Matter

Executive SponsorSkilled ResourcesExecution

About the Author:


Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is chairman of The Standish Group. He has been professionally involved in the computer industry for over 40 years and has a long list of published books, papers, articles and speeches. He has a combination of technical, marketing, and research achievements focused on mission-critical applications and technology. He is best known for his research on project performance and early recognizing technology trends. Jim is a pioneer of modern research techniques and continues to advance in the research industry through case-based analytical technology.

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