‘Loonshots’: How to Support Crazy Ideas That Just Might Work

By Kaitlin Milliken, Scott Kirsner |  February 13, 2020

Eighteen years ago, entrepreneur Safi Bahcall started Synta Pharmaceuticals — a biotech company developing new drugs for treating cancer. Curing the disease soon took a personal turn when Bahcall’s father was diagnosed with a rare type of leukemia that eventually claimed his life. 

“As our company grew…I looked inside big companies and small startups. There were promising ideas trapped inside the basements of those organizations that could have helped my father,” Bahcall said. “All of which boils down to one mystery: Why is it that good teams with the best intentions and excellent people will kill great ideas?” 

Bahcall wrote a book to explore that question: Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. Bahcall shared insights from Loonshots on the mainstage at InnoLead’s 2019 Impact event. He also shared takeaways from his time as CEO of Synta Pharmaceuticals. (The 2020 Impact gathering will take place in Boston, October 19-21, 2020.)

Hugh Molotsi joined Bahcall on stage to discuss the challenges of intraprenuership and best practices for cultivating high-potential employee ideas. During his 22-year career at Intuit, Molotsi launched several new businesses for the financial software company, including Intuit Payments. His book, The Intrapreneur’s Journey, explains how to develop a culture of innovation at large companies. Today, Molotsi is the CEO of Ujama, a mobile platform where parents can team up to coordinate carpooling, play dates, and babysitting. 

A Glass of Water: An Analogy for Understanding Innovative Cultures 

Safi Bahcall: Why do good teams kill great ideas? … To answer that question, all you need to do is look inside a glass of water. … When I stick my finger in [a glass of water], I can swirl it around. Molecules just slosh around my finger. … At 32 Fahrenheit…the water suddenly freezes. What was sloshing around becomes completely rigid. Why? The molecules inside are exactly the same. So how did they suddenly change behavior? … There’s no CEO molecule there saying, “Oh, it’s 33 Fahrenheit. Everybody slosh… Wait, wait…it’s 31 [degrees]. Everybody line up and be rigid.” … They just [change].

That gives us a new way to think about why companies suddenly change, why they go from being wildly innovative, embracing wild new ideas, to rigidly rejecting them. … If you reward rank and hierarchy, you will get a political culture. If you celebrate intelligent risk-taking and ideas, you will get an innovative culture… And the reason it’s so important is that no amount of this sort of singing “Kumbaya” [for innovation] is going to transform cultures, just like no amount of yelling at a block of ice — “Hey, molecules, could you loosen up a little bit?” — is going to melt that block of ice. But a small change in temperature can get that job done. 

The Challenge of Setting Aside Time for Innovation

Hugh Molotsi: The biggest underutilized asset at most companies are the ideas in their employees’ heads. … If you think about a typical company, a frontline employee spends most of their time working on products or helping serve customers. So they’re bombarded with insights on how to serve customers better — how to improve products — but they’re typically not the ones making those decisions. Those decisions…in a typical company are made by senior executives. Now, think about how they spend most of their day: in meetings with other senior executives, right? [Those senior executives] don’t have that same access to insights, and yet they’re making the decisions. … That’s why, over time, these large companies start to make fewer and fewer good decisions. 

We say the key to unlocking all these great assets is really around autonomy. … How do you say, “Look, let’s allow employees to passionately pursue these great ideas that they have. And let’s take away this whole notion [that] these executives…have this wisdom to choose what’s a good idea or a bad idea.” 

I know it’s a challenge for companies to make these autonomous [time set aside for innovation] programs work in a sustainable way. … 3M is credited with really being the first company to come up with a structured program like that. They have a 15 percent time program. Intuit has a similar program. … What I tell people [is] the notion of whether it’s 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent is not as important as signaling to employees that “yes, you have the freedom to go and work on things.” And if your manager is giving you a hard time, you at least have something to lean on and say, “Look…the company wants me to do this.” 

Balancing the Core and the New  

Safi Bahcall: How do we balance the core and the new? … The reason that’s so challenging is…the creators who are coming up with new ideas…they are trying to maximize risk. You try…10 things, nine of which won’t work. The one that does work changes how we see the world, and is a revolution in our industry. Now, imagine going to the soldiers who are responsible for on time, on budget, on spec. … The word “risk” is a terrible word. You think these groups are speaking the same language, but they’re not, because that one word…means totally opposite things to one group.

You want that tension. You want the artist trying 10 crazy things, because if they’re not…you’ll discover that surprising thing that you thought could never happen when it’s a bullet coming to your head… And you want the soldiers seeing the [challenges and saying,] “Okay, well, let’s de-risk it.” You need them working together.