15 Jul The secret to innovation is hidden in the details.

I picked up this book by Safi Bahcall because our “loonshot,” COMRADITY, is a place for nurturing big ideas.

But there’s more to successful innovation than just a space, a gong, and a happy buddha. And there’s much more to Safi’s book.

Bahcall describes a new kind of leadership – a gardener rather than a rockstar.  A matured Steve Jobs who acknowledged the need to explore what came after the iPod, but didn’t lead the project. Someone who plants seeds for a team of experts to cultivate.

Safi demonstrates that the secret to really big innovation is hidden in the details rather than more familiar “short” stories, the retrospective case studies that skip over the roller coaster ride through trial and error and draw a straight rising line from beginning to end.

In Loonshots, How to Nurture The CRAZY IDEAS that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, Safi Bahcall’s detailed stories from past innovations reveal the value of taking the time to learn more than the superficial analysis of most innovation books today.

The details reveal the back story. The back story is the context that gives clarity to why something happened. “The why” is just as important as “the what.”

Here’s a quick example of my own to demonstrate the value of learning “the why.” When my grandfather turned 100, a local television reporter came to interview him. Born in 1889, as we all know, many really big innovations happened during his lifetime. So you may be as surprised as I was by his take on the single biggest. He answered: the forward pass.

My grandfather played college football at the same time that many were calling for the abolition of college football. College kids were literally dying to play from the violence of ground game tactics. That’s why coaches started exploring new tactics like the forward pass. Instead of being abolished, college football became the seed to what is now the National Football League. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-early-history-of-footballs-forward-pass-78015237/

If we just looked at “the what” – Coach Pop Warner’s Indian’s .647 winning record, number of yards and points gained by the forward pass over the ground game – we’d think that college football grew into a business simply because of the stats. But if that innovation hadn’t also reduced the violence of the college sport, football may have been abolished before it had a chance to become a multi-billion dollar business.

Understanding “the why” offers an insight for the National Football League, even today. While pro players aren’t dying to play, the brain injuries they have sustained have a lasting deleterious impact, a regrettable, unacknowledged “human capital burn rate” behind a very profitable business. How could the game be innovated to preempt this vulnerability? One consideration is to look at the financial incentives that motivate players to risk their personal safety and health.

Safi poses a question that no one has answered yet. Could an incentive structure re-balance a system that has gotten out of whack.

What would change if business innovators were incentivized differently?

Leaders could be incentivized to take the time to cultivate of seeds into big ideas.

Teams of equals could be incentivized to share information and invent solutions to the “false fails” that innovators without entrepreneurial persistence have left behind.

Team members could be motivated to contribute their individual expertises into one big innovation that realizes so much more than the sum of the individual parts.

And the unacknowledged human capital burn rate supporting the few very profitable unicorn innovators would be mitigated.

The unanswered question is how to construct incentives to motivate a leader to plant a seed with a clear vision of “why” and for a team of equals to take the time, share expertise, and persist to combine what they know into something none of them could do alone.