The secret weapon that helped the Allied powers win World War II nearly didn’t see the light of day. The U.S. Navy had the tool in its possession for eighteen years and didn’t even know it. The weapon was radar.
In 1922, two engineers—including a the Navy’s senior radio scientist— discovered a way to detect enemy ships in fog, darkness or smoke. It also detected planes. Radar, according to one military historian, would change warfare more than any single development since the airplane.
“The Navy ignored it,” according to phycisist and biotech entrepreneur, Safi Bahcall, in his new book, Loonshots. The scientists abandoned their project for years because they failed to get funding or support for their idea. Bahcall writes that radar was a classic ‘loonshot,’ a radical idea that’s met with skepticism.
The hero of this particular story was William “Deak” Parsons, a Naval officer (later elevated to Admiral), who realized the potential of the project and circulated a proposal for $5,000 in funding. Stunned that it had been rejected, Parsons “took the idea to every head of desk in the Navy and made the case…with the persistence of a door-to-door salesman.” He convinced top decision makers in the military to fight for the project.
I recently sat down with Bahcall to talk about one of the book’s themes: “The best inventors do not necessarily make the best champions.” According to Bahcall, Parsons was a project champion. Project champions are “bilingual specialists” who can bridge the gap between “artist and soldier.”
A ‘soldier’ is someone whose job it is to manufacture or deliver a product on time, on budget, and according to specifications. They are experts in operations and execution—think Tim Cook at Apple. An ‘artist’ is the person whose job it is to create surprising new ideas that wow customers and put the company (or organization) ahead of the competition—think Jony Ive at Apple.
In the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, where Bahcall spent much of his career, the artist is the scientist working on new drugs. In most cases, however, the scientist doesn’t speak the language required to get generate support and excitement for their idea. The pharmaceutical industry came up with a novel idea to solve this communication problem. They created a specific role—project champions—to work with both the scientists and the business side to turn an idea into reality.
“People don’t appreciate how critically important project champions are,” Bahcall told me. “Let’s say a scientist created a drug that has a decent chance. The scientist is rarely able to explain why the company should be excited about it and why it could be an important drug in the field. Not only that, they they often don’t want to play that role.”
In biotech and pharmaceuticals, a company’s very existence often depends on project champions. Many of the best companies have learned to separate the roles of inventor and champion. They go even future, actively training people to act as project champions.
My conversation with Bahcall reminded me of an interview I conducted with UC Berkeley management professor Morten Hansen, who I wrote about for this Forbes article. He spent five years researching thousands of top performers across dozens of fields. Those who stood out were forceful advocates. “The ability to advocate for one’s goals and gain the required support is one of a broader set of people interaction skills required in modern workplaces,” says Hansen.
Hansen identifies forceful advocates as people who appeal to reason and logic but also use a number of rhetorical techniques to stir people’s emotions and generate excitement.
In Bahcall’s book, the ones who appeal to reason and logic are the inventors. The champions are the ‘bilingual specialists’ ones who can speak the language of the inventor and who use a range of rhetorical skills to generate excitement.
There are a few amazing individuals who can play both roles—the inventor and the champion. These are often the leaders who I write about and whose skills I try to teach my readers. Bahcall’s book reminds me that it is a rare combination of skills that, in many cases, should be divided among two people—the inventor and the champion.
Collaboration and communication are the keys to success in today’s complex and interconnected workplace. Today, more than ever, success means convincing other people to buy in to an idea. Nurture those crazy ‘loonshot’ ideas by assigning a champion who can sell it.
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