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Unleashing creativity in your organization.


Separate the phases

  • Separate your artists and soldiers: Create separate groups for inventors and operators: those who may invent the next transistor vs. those who answer the phone; those who design radically new weapons vs. those who assemble planes. You can’t ask the same group to do both, just like you can’t ask water to be liquid and solid at the same time.
  • Tailor the tools to the phase: Wide spans, loose controls, and flexible (creative) metrics wor k best for loonshot groups. Narrow spans, tight controls, and rigid (quantitative) metrics work best for franchise groups.
  • Watch your blind side: Make sure your loonshot nursery seeds both types of loonshots, especially the type you are least comfortable with. S-type loonshots are the small changes in strategy no one thinks will amount to much. P-type loonshots are technologies no one thinks will work.

Create dynamic equilibrium

  • Love your artists and soldiers equally: Artists tend to favor artists; soldiers tend to favor soldiers. Teams and companies need both to survive and thrive. Both need to feel equally valued and appreciated. (Try to avoid calling one side “bozos.”)
  • Manage the transfer, not the technology: Innovative leaders with some successes tend to appoint themselves loonshot judge and jury (the Moses Trap). Instead, create a natural process for projects to transfer from the loonshot nursery to the field, and for valuable feedback and market intelligence to cycle back from the field to the nursery. Help manage the timing of the transfer: not too early (fragile loonshots will be permanently crushed), not too late (making adjustments will be difficult). Intervene only as needed, with a gentle hand. In other words, be a gardener, not a Moses.
  • Appoint and train project champions to bridge the divide: Soldiers will resist change and see only the warts on the baby-stage ideas from artists. Artists will expect everyone to appreciate the beautiful baby underneath. They may not have the skills to convince soldiers to experiment and provide the feedback that is crucial for ultimate success. Identify and train bilingual specialists, fluent in both artist-speak and soldier-speak, to bridge the divide.

Spread a system mindset

  • Keep asking why: Level 0 teams don’t analyze failures. Level 1 teams assess how product features may have failed to meet market needs (outcome mindset). Level 2 teams probe why the organization made the choices that it did (system mindset). They analyze both successes and failures because they recognize that good outcomes don’t always imply good decisions (got lucky), just as bad outcomes don’t always imply bad decisions (played the odds well). In other words, they analyze the quality of decisions, not just the quality of outcomes.
  • Keep asking how decision-making processes can be improved: Identify key influences—people involved, data considered, analyses conducted, how choices were framed, how market or company conditions affected that framing—as well as both financial and nonfinancial incentives for individuals and for the team as a whole. Ask how those influences can be changed to enhance the decision-making process in the future.
  • Identify teams with outcome mindset and help them adopt system mindset: Analyzing a product or a market may be technically challenging, but it is a familiar and straightforward exercise. Analyzing why a team arrived at a decision can be both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It requires self-awareness from team members; the self-confidence to acknowledge mistakes, especially interpersonal ones; and the candor and trust to give and receive delicate feedback. The process is likely to be more efficient, and less painful, when it is mediated by a neutral expert from outside the team.

Raise the magic number

  • Reduce return-on-politics: Make lobbying for compensation and promotion decisions difficult. Find ways to make those decisions less dependent on an employee’s manager and more independently assessed and fairly calibrated across the company. • Use soft equity: Identify and apply the nonfinancial rewards that make a big difference. For example: peer recognition, intrinsic motivators.
  • Increase project–skill fit: Invest in the people and processes that will scan for a mismatch between employees’ skills and their assigned projects, and will help managers adjust roles or employees transfer between groups. The goal is to have employees stretched neither too much nor too little by their roles.
  • Fix the middle: Identify and fix perverse incentives, the unintended consequences of well-intentioned rewards. Pay special attention to the dangerous middle-manager levels, the weakest point in the battle between loonshots and politics. Shift away from incentives that encourage battles for promotion and toward incentives centered on outcomes. Celebrate results not rank.
  • Bring a gun to a knife fight: Competitors in the battle for talent and loonshots may be using outmoded incentive systems. Bring in a specialist in the subtleties of the art—a chief incentives officer.
  • Fine-tune the spans: Widen management spans in loonshot groups (but not in franchise groups) to encourage looser controls, more experiments, and peer-to-peer problem solving.

For anyone championing a loonshot, anywhere:

  • Mind the False Fail: See chapter 2 for the False Fail of Friendster (social networks) and the False Fails of the statins (the spurious results in mice and in dogs). Is a negative outcome due to a flaw in the idea or the test? What would you have to believe for it to be a flaw in the test? How might you evaluate that hypothesis?
  • Listen to the Suck with Curiosity (LSC): When you have poured your soul into a project, you will be tempted to argue with critics and dismiss whoever challenges you. You will improve your odds of success by setting aside those urges and investigating, with genuine curiosity, the underlying reasons why an investor declines, a partner walks, or a customer chooses a competitor. It’s hard to hear no one likes your baby. It’s even harder to keep asking why. (Chapter 2)
  • Adopt a system rather than an outcome mindset: Everyone will make wrong turns in navigating the long, dark tunnel through which every loonshot travels. You will gain much more (and feel much better) by trying to understand the process by which you arrived at those decisions. How did you prepare? What influenced you? How might you improve your decision-making process? (Chapter 5)
  • Keep your eyes on spirit, relationships, and time (SRT): A final word below, which is not in the main text. It’s an added thought for anyone who makes it this far in the book. When championing a loonshot, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important, of why you are doing what you are doing. A little obsession can be good. Too much can backfire. What’s helped me, on occasion, to pull back from the edge—to create a more sustainable and productive level of obsession—is stepping back to think on SRT: spirit, relationships, and time.


  • Some people find meaning in serving a higher power. Others find it in serving their country. Still others find it in providing for their families, or spreading joy, or helping others live better, freer lives. Everyone has a mission or noble purpose. William Faulkner, for example, spoke of the noble purpose of the writer and the poet:
  • I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. When diving deep into a project or career it’s easy for the head and the heart to stray to things that don’t matter. I began in the academic world, in which the noble purpose is to seek truth. I switched to the biotech world, with a mission to improve the lives of patients in need. Both worlds, like all pursuits, offer fool’s gold and true gold. Only by coming back to noble purpose could I tell the two apart.
  • Purpose feeds spirit, and spirit is the engine that keeps us going. It steadies us for the battles ahead.


  • The support needed to survive the long tunnel of skepticism and uncertainty doesn’t come from things. It comes from people. Several years ago, a physician who treats the terminally ill shared an insight with me that had changed his life. In hundreds of end-of-life conversations, he said, he never once heard anyone speak about what kind of car they have in their driveway, or even what kind of driveway they have. They always spoke of family and loved ones. At the edge of obsession, relationships are often the first to go. But they are usually our most important need. When I catch myself making that mistake, I think back to those end-of-life conversations.


  • The anxiety from championing a crazy idea, challenging experts, and facing repeated rejection can spill over into mindlessly filling a calendar. Completing urgent, but not important, tasks creates a sense of accomplishment and control. But time is our most precious resource, just as relationships are our most precious source of joy and support. We all juggle many balls, a wise friend named Philip Lader likes to say, but what makes all the difference is knowing which are made of rubber and which are made of glass. For me, the ones to handle with great care, to avoid dropping and losing forever, have always been spirit, relationships, and
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