Elon Musk SpaceX: a true innovator

If you ever want to see how a real innovation leader responds to an experimental setback, look at what Elon Musk just posted on Twitter.

Everyone can learn a lot from Elon Musk, one of the world’s best examples of a true innovation visionary. After becoming rich developing and selling PayPal, he’s founded some of the most forward-thinking engineering companies in the world, including Tesla Motors (electric cars), Solar City (the largest solar panel company in the USA) and SpaceX (commercial space launches).

SpaceX is still developing it’s technology, and during a test flight yesterday, this happened:

Fortunately nobody was hurt. And that led Elon to respond to the situation with the following tweet: 

What I want you to do for a minute is read into the attitude behind the man running a multi-billion dollar company, especially when things go wrong. For many CEOs, a public failure of their service like this could wipe millions off the company value. That’s why most R&D is shrouded in secrecy. But this leader understands that in order to push boundaries, you need to be willing to accept that some of your experiments are going to fail. As the old adage goes:

If you’re at the cutting edge, you’re going to bleed a bit

Innovator leaders come in many shapes and sizes. Some are famous for delivering a product which perfectly satisfies a customer’s needs (anyone ever heard of an iPod?) But then there are others who have a vision of what they want to be possible in the future which is impossible with today’s technology. And the only way to overcome this is to invest in developing technology. They realise the value in setting their teams impossible challenges.

SpaceX isn’t the only impossible challenge which Musk is investing in. Tesla motors realised that current battery technology was what was holding back the ability for electric cars to compete with gasoline, so they have announced that with Panasonic, they will invest more than $5 billion to develop a new battery ‘giga-factory’ to bring down the cost and improve the efficiency of car batteries. And I’m convinced that Musk realises that it will take several years of experimentation before they’ve sufficiently developed that technology too.

Ultimately, it’s not just about how much your company trusts its teams to go into the unknown, it’s about your attitude when things don’t go to plan, especially when developing new offerings. Large companies which rely on structured project-management principles are less adaptable to hiccups caused by insights during the development process which require aspects of the offering to change. Really innovative leaders give their teams the ability to experiment relentlessly, and treat failed experiments as valuable learning experiences rather than something to be punished.

How did you react the last time an experiment failed? Let me know in the comments below, and please share the article.