Mastering the Balance – Loonshots and Franchise

Long Now Boston Conversation Series
September 9, 02019, at the Cambridge Innovation Center.
Featuring Safi Bahcall, author of Loonshots (2019)

Synopsis: According to Safi Bahcall, the people, companies, institutions and governments that drive progress take advantage of both the creativity that generates new ideas, and the logistical discipline that can take them to scale.  Creatives need the open environment of loonshot nurseries.  Soldiers need the structure and hierarchy of a franchise. Both are essential to long-term success, and the best leaders are the ones that love their creatives and soldiers equally.  

Summary by Paul Hoxie and George Gantz.

Phase Changes

A lot of good ideas get trapped in the basements of human organizations.  Even the brightest of teams can kill the best ideas.  To explain why, it’s instructive to think about what happens to water at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  At 33, the material is all water – fluid and moving, dominated by the forces of entropy.  At 31, the material is a block of ice – rigid and impenetrable, dominated by the binding energy of the molecules of H2O.  At 32 degrees, however, the two forces are in perfect balance, and the material is a mixture of ice crystals and fluid water, flowing but ready to snap into rigid crystal if the temperature drops.  As human organizations age and get bigger, then tend to cool and behave more like a block of ice.

Similar situations happen in traffic.  Many vehicles can move steadily at high speeds on a superhighway.  But a small disturbance in traffic flow, caused by a single sudden tap on the brakes, can cascade into a logjam, as each subsequent driver has to hit the brakes harder.  The result can be a jamiton with a solid block of cars extending for miles. Smooth flow can become jammed if signaling and communication breaks down – another hazard for large human organizations.

Structure can make a difference in whether teams, companies and organizations get jammed up, or whether they can bring great new ideas successfully to market.   In small companies that remain open and fluid, good ideas are more easily generated. This is the water phase of an organization. Developing great new products depends on the chaotic and visionary attributes of creative teamwork.  These are the key attributes of a loonshot nursery.

Larger, more mature organizations with established business channels and logistical expertise can more easily drive products to scale in competitive markets.  This requires rigidity and hierarchy – the marks of the ice phase of an organization.  When a product goes to market, schedules need to be met, quality needs to be maintained, and reliability is paramount.  These are the key attributes of a great franchise organization.

Loonshot and Franchise do not mix well unless the organization can maintain the phase transition, like ice and water held at 32 degrees.  This requires clear focus and an extraordinary balance on the part of the organization’s leaders.  Loonshot people are very different from franchise people.  A good leader needs to strive for the balance that will let both succeed and to cultivate communication and understanding between the two groups.  A leader who emphasizes franchise too much ends up with lots of good ideas trapped in the basement.  

Finding the Balance

One such leader was Vannevar Bush.  In the summer of 1940, he quit his job as dean of engineering at MIT and went to Washington to meet with president Roosevelt.  At that time, German U-boats were delivering devastating losses on allied shipping, the German air force dominated the skies, and the Germans were working on the atomic bomb.  The prospects for allied forces, even with the subsequent entry of the US in the conflict, were grim.

Bush knew that a groundbreaking loonshot nursery was required, completely separate from the huge and excellent franchise of the US military.  With Roosevelt’s approval the Office of Scientific Research and Development was launched.  OSRD was responsible for several of the technological developments that helped win the war, including development of high-resolution microwave radar and modifications of the radar visual display that allowed allied planes to decimate the U-boat fleet.  Bush also helped initiate the Manhattan Project, and his 1945 report to the President, “Science, The Endless Frontier” set the stage for the creation of the National Science Foundation and similar federally supported but independent science-based organizations, and for the military’s own loonshot nursery, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.)

A successful organization stays at 32 degrees, where both ice and water coexist and create a dynamic equilibrium.  But the ice crystals (soldiers and flowing water molecules (artists), don’t naturally understand each other.  Soldiers need reliability and dependability – they tend not to ask questions. Artists need risk and free-thinking – they question everything.   Strong, resilient organizations need both.  Leaders need to be gardeners, cultivating both the Soldiers and the Artists and managing the tension between them.  Failures in leadership result in an insufficient transfer of ideas between the Artists and Soldiers, or outright conflict.

Lessons for Civilization

One of the great leaps forward in human progress began with a simple question:  how do we understand the motion of the sun, moon and planets? For many centuries, human progress was marked by the prosperity and longevity of the world’s great empires.  China and India together had about half of the world GDP in the 1st Century.  Islam flourished in the 9th – 13th Century, dominating the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  But these impressive franchises were slow to change and directed from the top down.  The concept of independent and inviolable “laws of nature” that could be studied by anyone was a threat to the established order and the Rule of the Divine.  It got stuck in the basement.

In contrast, the disorganized and chaotic environment in northern Europe coming out of the Middle Ages, with competing city-states vying for attention and control, proved to be a fertile ground for one of the most impressive loonshot nurseries in history. In this nursery, the Scientific Method was developed, and its success validated the idea that the “truth” about nature could be discovered and was not a function of divine fiat.

Many of the advances seemed to have uncertain prospects.  Tyco Brahe (1546-1601) was a well-educated Danish noble that reshaped the study of astronomy – and was then kicked out of Denmark.  He subsequently found favor in the Bohemian court in Prague, and with his student Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), established the mathematically rigorous foundations for modern astronomy.  The great English scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1726) later built on that foundation. The prospects and the fortunes of modern Western Civilization were radically accelerated by the loonshot nurseries of 17thcentury Europe.

Balancing in the Future

In the Q&A, Safi responded to a question asking about current world powers, and the extent to which any of them grasped the importance of loonshot nurseries to historical progress.  Safi observed that the United States has had a significant advantage in managing the tension between Loonshot and Franchise activities since World War 2.  From that point forward, US dominance continued to grow. He observed, however, that other countries, significantly, China and Russia, seem to have figured out how to maintain the phase change balance. There is some likelihood our long-term competitive lead will shrink.   There are also anti-science threads that seemed to have gained ground in our country and that threaten our continued progress.  The future is not certain.



Safi Bahcall is a second-generation physicist (the son of two astrophysicists) and a biotechentrepreneur.  He received his BA summa cum laude from Harvard and his PhD in physics from Stanford. After working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years.  In 2008, he was named E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year.  In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors (PCAST) on the future of national research.  He lives with his wife and two children in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


See original event announcement here.


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Our next Community Conversation will be on October 7. Hyunjun Park, founder and CEO of Catalog DNA, and Nova Spivack, founder of Arch Mission, will talk about Making Small and Thinking Big:  DNA Data Storage and the Arch Mission. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.

On November 4, James Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute on the Ethics of Emerging Technologies, and Nir Eiskovitz, Director of the Applied Ethics Center at UMASS Boston, will lead a conversation on Future Humans and the Price of Progress.

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