Walter Isaacson’s new book about Elon Musk is a fine biography, but an even better business book. And like all the best business books, it’s not merely an instruction manual, but an inspirational guide too. Not since reading Ricardo Semler’s Maverick in the early 2000s have I been this impressed with the foresight, fortitude, and ferocity of a founder. Musk is truly one of a kind.
I know positive statements like that about Musk can trigger some people. Most have already formed their opinion of the man, and, especially in technology, it’s typically a polarized one. Either the man is the second coming of capitalist Christ, or he’s the devil’s conman incarnate. Ironically, like many of the most interesting people to ever grace this earth, there are shimmers of truth in both caricatures.
That’s why Isaacson’s book is such an enjoyable biography. You could quote a hundred passages supporting either position. His entrepreneurial achievements are as incontestable as his maniacal, even masochistic, commitment to a HARDCORE work ethic. The latter seems as much motivated by escaping personal demons as by moving the needle. But the needle also does move!
The part of the business book I’ve enjoyed the most is the countless illustrations of how Musk applies his “algorithm”. A methodology for shipping everything from electric cars to Mars rockets to flamethrowers to humanoid robots. Quoted in full:
- Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from “the legal department” or “the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. 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.
- Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.
- Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.
- Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.
- Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.
This is not just a succinct distillation of a practical and powerful work method but one for a successful company culture too. And this is how Musk runs his companies. Isaacson’s book is easily worth the read for the countless case studies illustrating exactly how these points are applied.
The trick to getting the best out of Musk’s method is to realize that you needn’t celebrate the madness as much as merely accept that it’s part of a package deal. Like it so often is. One of the memorable quotes from the book reveals that even Musk himself realizes this: “Did you think I was just going to be a normal, chill dude?”.
You can absolutely learn from people you wouldn’t want to be. Extracting wisdom from Musk’s success does not oblige you to become his disciple or his mirror. Besides, you’d probably fail miserably in an attempt of the latter anyway.
A key reason Musk gets away with his madness is that the missions he pursues can motivate people to persevere in spite of him. So unless you’re also trying to single-handedly accelerate the energy transition of earth or attempting to colonize Mars, you’d best dilute his example accordingly.
That seems to be a lesson that’s currently lost to the ages. The ability to appreciate, applaud, and even partly appropriate elements of a character you’d never wish to swallow whole. I can shake my head as much as anyone about some of Musk’s antics, and yet still be ever-so-pleased that he’s here, doing what he does.
Most founders and executives would do well to add at least 10% of Musk’s intensity to their personal recipe.