How can institutions balance the existing businesses that pay the bills today with creating the innovative new technologies that will pay the bills tomorrow?
That was the challenge facing Safi Bahcall, member of President Obama’s council of science advisors, and author of the book, “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.”
Bahcall discusses his experiences on Obama’s Council of Science Advisors. Shortly after he was appointed, he was told he should update Vannevar Bush’s guidelines to innovation in government. The problem was, he had no idea of who Vannevar Bush was. He dove into his history and discovered that it was Bush who had convinced Roosevelt to create the Office of Scientific Research and Development. That may have been the single most important decision lf the war effort. The OSRD brought forth existing technologies and created new ones, including radar and the proximity fuse that helped the US win World War Two. There is a strong counterfactual that without the OSRD, Nazi Germany would have won the war.
Bahcall argues that innovation within institutions fail in the transfer from the those thinking about the future to to those operating in the present.” The group that is making the money for the company today — “franchisees” — wants to stick with what is working, those projects that have a very high success rate. The group that is creating the game changing products — the “innovators” — are taking chances on ideas with a very high failure rate. Bridging the two groups is the role of leadership — something companies like Apple and Pixar have done very well.
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Next week, we speak with Barbara Tversky, professor of psychology at Stanford and Columbia, and author of Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought. Tversky was married to Amos Tversky, and helped Michael Lewis research his book on Tversky & Kahneman, The Undoing Project.