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It's Only Common Sense
By Dan Beaulieu
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It’s Only Common Sense: Doing Business the Elon Musk Way
I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk and it’s great because you get an in-depth description of what the richest man in the world is really like. It’s worth the time, and I strongly recommend it. Believe me, I’ll be doing a book review once I’m finished.
Meanwhile, I’m anxious to share some things I’ve already gained from it. First, like all other geniuses who get stuff done, Musk is not a very nice guy. Actually, he’s kind of a jerk, but most of us already knew that. If you recall, Steve Jobs was not a nice guy either, and Bill Gates (in his heyday) was known as a nerd and a jerk. Put Henry Ford and Thomas Edison in the same categories. It seems that those who aim to “put a dent in the universe” are not very nice guys. They are passionately driven by a vision of changing the world and no one or nothing will stand in their way.
As Elon said when he hosted Saturday Night Live, “I reinvented the electric car and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you really think I would be a normal, chill dude?” Nope, I guess not.
The Musk Algorithm
In almost every meeting, especially when Musk feels that his workers are getting off track, he will recite what he calls “The Algorithm.” Most of his workers know it so well they sometimes mouth the words along with him. Here’s how it goes:
- 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.” He says you need to know the name of the real person who made the 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 Musk. Then make the requirements less dumb.
- Delete any part of the 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, you didn’t delete enough.
- Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a step of the process that should not exist.
- Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be sped up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, he says he mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that he later realized should have been deleted.
- Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and in Fremont, he says, was that he 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 shaken out.”
Sometimes these five steps are accompanied by a few extra corollaries. Some of the most relevant to Musk’s way of managing are:
- All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavalry leader who can’t ride a horse, or a general who can’t use a sword.
- Camaraderie is dangerous. 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.
- It’s okay to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.
- Never ask your troops to do something you are not willing to do. Whenever there are problems to solve, don’t just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.
- When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude requires a brain transplant.
- A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle. The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.
To some, these rules might sound a little harsh. But to paraphrase Elon Musk, what do you expect when you are reinventing electric cars, sending men and women to Mars, changing solar energy storage, building a tunnel across the country, and developing global wi-fi? Standard rules from a normal, chill dude?
It’s only common sense.
Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Marketing Group.
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