Business The Elon Musk Way

I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Elon Musk and I have to say it is great! It really gives an in-depth description of what the richest man in the world is really like. I strongly recommend that everyone read it. It is worth the time. Believe me. I’ll be doing a review on the book once I finish it so stay tuned.

Meanwhile there are some things I want to share from the book in this column today. First of all, Musk, like all other geniuses who get stuff done, is not a very nice guy. Actually, he is kind of a jerk. But well, most of us knew that already. Steve Jobs was not a nice guy either if you remember. Gates in his heyday was also a nerd and a jerk, as was Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. It seems that guys whose goal is to “put a dent in the universe” as one of them famously said are not very nice guys. They are passionately driven by a vision of changing the world and they will let  no one or anything 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 was going to 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. So here for your own business education, or amusement, or both is the Musk Algorithm:

  1. 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 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 me. Then make the requirements less dumb.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 the processes that I later realized should have been deleted.
  5. Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and in 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 shaken out.

And as Mr. Isaacson adds, sometimes these 5 Algorithm steps are accompanied by a few extra corollaries. Some of the most relevant to Musk’s way of managing are:

  1. All technical managers have had 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.
  2. Comradery 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.
  3. It’s OK to be wrong. Just don’t be confident and wrong.
  4. Never ask your troops to do something you are not willing to do.
  5. 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.
  6. When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude requires a brain transplant.
  7. A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.
  8. The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.

To some, maybe these rules might sound a little harsh. But to paraphrase Elon Musk himself, what do you expect when you are reinventing electric cars and sending men and women to Mars, And 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.