Growth Is Stunted When 'Loonshots' Are Shot Down

By Lindsey Novak

November 21, 2019 6 min read

Q: My stepdaughter is a scientist working to gain a reputation in a competitive field that monitors a diminishing resource. Part of her job is to present her findings to various stakeholders. Occasionally, when giving a presentation of her findings, her credibility is attacked by colleagues or by people whose jobs are limited by her findings. Recently, she was attacked for her study methods, but she had strictly followed standard practices. She felt like a deer in the headlights, which is not a positive place to be.

She would like to develop strategies and attitudes for defending herself and her work. What recommendations do you have for her?

A: Your stepdaughter has chosen a fascinating and challenging career as a scientific researcher. Along with the challenge of conducting research, having to answer to a higher authority opens one to the potential of business challenges as well as challenges presented by colleagues. Since her research results may limit the livelihoods of others in the field or reduce the profits of stakeholders, it would be naive to assume those affected would take it lightly.

In "Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries," Dr. Safi Bahcall presents real life situations and explanations for what causes groups either to embrace or attack new ideas, regardless of incomplete testing or potential good that could result from further research. With a B.A. in physics from Harvard, a Ph.D. from Stanford and a Miller Research Fellowship at UC Berkeley, Bahcall exposes the frustration people experience when business leaders or fellow scientists halt further research that could potentially change the future. Using both business and science, and after a three-year stint consulting for McKinsey, Bahcall co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as the company's CEO for 13 years. In 2008, he was named Ernst & Young New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. With Bahcall's genius of combining business knowledge with physics and psychology, he discovered the behavioral causes for many of the monumental financial losses in business. Bahcall defines a loonshot as "a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged."

The five laws of loonshots set the stage for caution in business and science.

The first law: the mindset. Bahcall writes, "Failing to understand the surprising fragility of the loonshot — assuming that the best ideas will blast through barriers, fueled by the power of their brilliance — can be a very dangerous mistake, as the US learned in the Second World War."

The second law: "Mind the false fail." Scientist Akira Endo experimented with statins to lower cholesterol. He tested the drug on rats, which is the first animal typically used in experimentation. The statins failed to lower cholesterol. What he didn't realize at the time was that it was a "false fail." Rats have mostly good cholesterol and very little bad cholesterol. Endo later tested statins on hens, which resulted in a success. Hens have both good and bad cholesterol — similar to humans. Testing on the wrong animal caused a "false fail," and created a $300 billion loss for the company. Due to the successful testing on hens, statins have shown a three-decade decline in deaths from heart disease. Another company permanently shut down its statin testing due to a "false fail," which removed the drug company from the competition. Bahcall explains, "The most important breakthroughs aren't showered with tools and money and offers of help. They pass through long dark tunnels of skepticism and uncertainty, crushed or neglected; their champions often dismissed as crazy."

The third law: "Listen to the suck with curiosity (LSC)" means investigate the false fail. The massive weight of teams and committees will use any failure as an excuse to end a project and crush a fragile loonshot before its time.

The fourth law: "Forget culture; create an innovative structure." The iron-hand leader approach is rarely, if ever, successful. Rules and creativity do not make peaceful and productive partnerships.

The fifth and final law: "Be a gardener, not a Moses." A gardener focuses on and values the growth and development required for a creative idea to bloom. Loonshots are creative and brilliant ideas that must be allowed time to develop, and business leaders that hope to succeed must offer researchers the time to cultivate their hopes in order to change the world for the better. To do this, people must be given freedom and a chance to fail before succeeding.

Email career and life coach: [email protected] with your workplace problems and issues. Ms. Novak responds to all emails. For more information, visit and for past columns, see

Photo credit: Republica at Pixabay

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