Can We Innovate Like Elon Musk?

Can We Innovate Like Elon Musk?

GUEST POST from Pete Foley

When we see someone do something really well, it’s always tempting to try to emulate them. And this is clearly a smart strategy; humans have evolved to automatically copy the successful strategies of others. We are cognitive misers, and it requires considerably less thinking to copy a great idea than to come up with it ourselves. As a result, more of us are the ancestors of people who were good at copying big ideas than of the people who originally came up with them.

In that context, it’s hard to ignore Elon Musk at present. A polarizing character perhaps, but as an innovator, he is second to none. As if leading the electric car revolution was not enough, he has reinvented and reinvigorated space travel, and is currently in the process of doing the same for robotics, AI and public transport, the latter via his tunneling technology. Now he’s added social media to his collection, and it’s hard to imagine even his greatest critics aren’t just a little bit interested to see how he’ll shake that field up. So should we, or can we copy him?

Can we become “Mini-Musk’s”? As tempting as that is, I’m not sure that is even close to possible. It’s really difficult to closely emulate someone else. Everyone has different natural skill sets, motivations, personalities, thinking styles and resources, and so what works for one person may not work for us. It’s no coincidence that the learning curve to effective leadership and innovation is paved with abandoned role models – people who were successful as individuals but not as ‘templates’.   I’m old enough to remember when everyone was trying to emulate Jack Welch, or more recently Steve Jobs. Even when I was attempting to be a professional musician, every A&R person we spoke to wanted us to be the next Sex Pistols or Dire Straits, as they were the big new bands at the time (yes, I’m old, and yes, those are quite different bands). Nobody was looking for U2, or even Guns and Roses, neither of whom sound a lot like either the Sex Pistols or G&R!

We don’t become the next big thing by mimicking the current big thing.   To the best of my knowledge, none of the aforementioned role models were themselves trying to be the ‘new’ anybody, any more than U@ wanted to be the new Sex Pistols. In reality, we don’t become the next big thing by mimicking the current big thing; it’s already too late for that. The reasons are complex. In addition to the individual differences mentioned above, the world has typically moved on, and even if it hasn’t, everybody else has the same opportunity to study the same examples, and so there is limited advantage to be had from closely copying the current best in class. True innovation leadership comes from originality, and from creating our own path. But that doesn’t mean we cannot learn a few things from current or past people who were really good at ‘stuff’,

The Gaga Effect: One of my favorite examples of that is Lady Gaga. She didn’t try to copy whoever was the gold standard at the time she emerged, she is a unique talent. But I could argue that she did borrow from both Madonna and Bowie, just as Bowie borrowed Liberally from Lou Reed, Anthony Newley and mime artist Lindsey Kemp. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and can borrow from them. But I believe that the best strategy is a blending one, taking some ideas from others that fit us, or the situation we are in, and blending them to create something original.

Musk Master class? So can we learn anything useful from Musk, or is he just a once in a generation genius, with a unique thinking style that we cannot emulate. I believe he is unique, but I also think we can learn a few thing from him.

  1. Think Big, but be flexible in how you get there. Musk is the master of the stretch goal. It’s easy to forget how ambitious the electric sports car was when he first pitched the idea. His space program has achieved what NASA couldn’t, his public transport tunnel system in Vegas looks like something from Blade Runner, and now he’s talking about AI personal robots in the near future. But while he uses high expectations to drive progress, he’s also willing to back off, albeit reluctantly, when he hits a roadblock. Few of us can set ourselves or others goals of this magnitude, but my experience, especially in corporate R&D, is that we often do the opposite. Corporate culture means that nobody wants to be the one who derails an aggressive goal, and all too often this is achieved by under-promising in the hope of over-delivering. But the reality is that innovation rarely happens faster than scheduled. So building padding into initiatives simply slows us down. Don’t get me wrong, we often miss even padded goals, but it’s rarely because of the issues we plan and pad for. It’s nearly always the unexpected that derails us, and aggressive goals tend to root out the unexpected faster.
  2. Take time to define the right problem, and make it stretching and systems based. In his recent TED interview, Musk talked at some length about Douglas Adams, the author of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” as a philosopher. In particular, in the context of our collective tendency to race to find answers, without spending long enough refining our questions. In Adams’ book, a race of super-beings invests in building an ultimate AI, with the goal of answering the ultimate question about ‘life, the universe and everything’. The ambiguous, and somewhat unsatisfying answer they eventually get is ‘42’. This answer is a lesson in the importance of asking well-defined questions, which becomes the quest in the next couple of books. I share Musk’s love of Adams, but always thought of him as more of a playful satirist than philosopher.   But he does make a great philosophical point, in that in our haste to action, we are often so busy looking for answers that we forget to effectively define the question, and so ultimately miss the big opportunity. And this applies to both size of the prize, and scope of our thinking. Musk is brilliant at setting ambitious goals and aggressive timelines, as mentioned above. But he’s also great at taking a systems approach, illustrated by Tesla being leading the charge (pun intended) in creating not just EV’s, but also the charging infrastructure they need to compete with legacy automobiles.
  3. Tenacity. Musk personifies vision, belief and bloody mindedness. Innovation can be expensive. Not just in financial terms, but also in personal terms. Musk describes pushing himself to the absolute edge, sleeping in factories, risking his mental health, and committing to his vision with an obsession where work-life balance is not even a consideration. I’m certainly not advocating that any of us should, or could go to those extremes. But that alone is a great insight, as in reality, very few of us, and mea culpa, really want to be the next Jobs or Musk. We ‘d love to have the success, but few really want to commit to that degree. That’s why few of us will lead a space program. But we can take a realistic look at how much we are willing to push ourselves ahead of time, and set stretching, but realize goals within that scope.
  4. Seek out criticism. Nobody really likes having their ideas criticized. But it really is better to have potential problems pointed out earlier rather than later in the process. As Musk took over Twitter, he said “ I hope that even my worst critics stay on Twitter’. We can all emulate from that. Echo chambers do not drive innovation, they drive incrementalism at best. Criticism is a really inexpensive form of learning by failing.  Even when its painful, it’s valuable.
  5. Neuro-diversity. This is a tough one, as we cannot choose to be neuro-diverse, or directly emulate it.   And it is at best highly speculative whether unique thinking processes are important in the success of Musk. Mea culpa, I personally sit on ‘the spectrum’, albeit not terrible far along it, but part of the problem with not being ‘normal’ is that you don’t really know what normal is.  And of course, vice versa, ‘normal’ thinkers, whatever that is, cannot really imagine being on the spectrum.  But while none of us has any control on how our minds are wired, we can embrace different thinking styles in our network. We can encourage and support diverse thinking styles.  But in reality, it’s hard to embrace mavericks in large, structured organizations.  I’d speculate that Musk probably wouldn’t have lasted 6 months at P&G, or many other multi-nationals. But for a company that prides itself of being innovative, that the world’s greatest innovator likely wouldn’t have flourished there should at least be food for thought.

Change, Controversy and the Abundance Economy. Full disclosure, if you hadn’t already guessed, I’m a fan of Elon Musk. I don’t always agree with him, but I admire the traits described above, and his willingness to be controversial. That’s probably another lesson for innovators. You really cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, and if you are driving radical change, you will likely upset a few people on that journey. But most of all, I admire his vision. A vision of breaking free of our planet, and of the abundance economy he discusses towards the end of the TED interview.

Abundance is the innovators ultimate dream, and it’s a topic I’ve been lucky enough to discuss with some very smart advocates for it, including James Burke and Matt Mason. Visionaries tend to get a little ahead of themselves sometimes, and I suspect that in some ways, Musk may be a little optimistic in this case. I grew up on Gerry Anderson, Thunderbirds, Star Trek, and a little later Arthur C Clark and Neal Stephenson. Even if I suspected that warp speed and teleporting might not encroach on my lifetime, I did believe that by now we’d be zipping around on jet packs or in flying cars, have colonies on Mars, be talking to AI’s on our video watches and flip phones, and that everybody would be wearing metallic versions of 60’s fashions. We’re not quite there with all of them, but we’re not that far away either. So maybe Musk is not that far wrong after all?

Image Credit: Pixabay

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About Pete Foley

Pete Foley is a consultant who applies Behavioral Science to catalyze innovation for Retail, Hospitality, Product Design, Branding and Marketing Design. He applies insights derived from consumer and shopper psychology, behavioral economics, perceptual science, and behavioral design to create practical solutions to difficult business challenges. He brings 25 years experience as a serial innovator at P&G. He has over 100 published or granted patents, has published papers in behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and visual science, is an exhibited artist and photographer, and an accomplished musician.

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