The algorithm of Elon Musk
To anyone I’ve offended,” Elon Musk declared on Saturday Night Live in 2021, “I just want to say, I reinvented electric cars [with Tesla] and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship [with SpaceX].”
To these can be added: providing internet to Ukraine with Starlink, constructing low-cost tunnels with The Boring Company, enhancing communication for people with neurological problems with Neuralink, developing general artificial intelligence with x.AI, changing social media into a superapp with X (formerly Twitter), and cofounding and leaving Paypal, plus OpenAI (whose ChatGPT Musk wants to challenge with x.AI). “Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?” Musk concluded.
Uber-smart and driven, Musk intends to save humanity as a species, but like the late Steve Jobs, he reportedly has little empathy for individuals.
Walter Isaacson’s eponymous biography illustrates the good and the bad, as he was granted access to Musk’s friends and foes. Musk, a control freak in other areas, deemed free speech so sacred that he never asked to read the manuscript before publication.
Musk is ruthless in firing employees. “Comradery is dangerous,” he says. “It makes it hard for people to challenge each other’s work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.”
But Musk earns the loyalty of employees who admire his hands-on behavior.
“Never ask your troops to do something you’re not willing to do,” he says as he sleeps on factory floors and labors beside his teams. Software managers spend time coding, solar company leaders install roofs. “Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can’t ride a horse or a general who can’t use a sword.”
More than skill, he values attitude and mindset. “When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.”
Musk takes risks and learns from failure. “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Of his favorite game Polytopia, he says, “You will lose. It will hurt the first 50 times. When you get used to it, you will play each game with [less] emotion. You only get a set number of turns in life. If we let a few of them slide, we will never get to Mars.”
In April 2023, the vehicle Starship launched, but self-destructed before it could reach orbit. Most would consider this a failure, but not Musk. “Our goal was to get clear of the pad and explode out of sight, and we did. There’s too much that can go wrong to get to orbit the first time. This is an awesome day.”
“We want to bring the public in on everything we’re doing, so they will support us,” he told his team. “That’s why we live-streamed the launch, even knowing it was likely to explode at some point.”
Musk’s algorithm is particularly instructive for manufacturing firms, but can also apply to any business. These steps are followed, in order, in his companies:
One: “Question every requirement. Know the name of the real person who made that requirement … Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.”
Two: “Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. If you do not end up adding back at least 10 percent of them, you didn’t delete enough.”
Three: “Simplify and optimize … A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist [at all].”
Four: “Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up, but only after following the first three steps … I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.”
Five: “Automate. This comes last. The big mistake … was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and bugs shaken out.”
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or the ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.