Crazy, Unloved but Potentially Transformational — What’s in your Loonshot nursery?

Rita McGrath
7 min readFeb 16, 2022

Author Safi Bahcall introduced the term “loonshots” to describe ventures with game-changing potential that nobody thought would work and whose champions were ridiculed. Which raises the question of how you keep the crazy ideas alive long enough to realize their potential?

Great new ideas, and terrible new ideas, unfortunately are almost identical at birth. This is why author, entrepreneur and biotech CEO Safi Bahcall has suggested an important dynamic for innovating organizations. These are:

  1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.
  2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.

These realities reflect a core tension for innovation metrics. This is that paradigm-shifting discoveries begin, imperfectly formed, in areas in which organizational slack provides resources for experimentation and tinkering. While the vision for how an idea might solve a problem might be clear, figuring out the path to get there is often a winding one, with doubters challenging the advocates for the idea, even as the advocates remain convinced that it has potential.

Here’s the problem: during the early wandering around period, these ideas need support. They have no way of producing anything remotely resembling a return on asset projection. In many cases, they produce failure for a long time before things begin to go as hoped for.

The long and tortured history of overnight successes

Here are a few examples:

Famous entrepreneur James Dyson began working on his iconic vacuum cleaner in 1979. Frustrated, he would later say, by the ineffectiveness of even the best vacuum cleaners of the day, he was inspired by the cyclonic separators used in industrial sawmills. He spent five years doing nothing but creating and testing prototypes (5,127 of them), supported by his wife, who taught art. Today, his company is worth billions but is still privately held as he doesn’t believe being a public company would allow the patience he believes breakthroughs require.

The Nespresso coffee pod system invented by Eric Favre, a Nestle engineer, was inspired in 1975 by…

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.