4 Innovation Strategies Learned from Elon Musk

Few people have made the as much impact in such a short career as Elon Musk, arguably among the greatest business people and inventors of our time. What makes him so successful? Below I share thoughts on four observations of his career over time. Follow his lead, and you too could be innovating like Musk.

  1. Make cool stuff. Without a doubt, one of the most significant things about Musk—he ships. He envisions, executes and delivers one project after another, and often with some more in between. He has established a pattern of joining teams and seeing delivery through to the finish line. From his first product, a video game he coded and sold before entering high school called Blastar, to his most recent concept-driven organization, OpenAI, Musk has delivered product after product, some of which have sold for mind-boggling sums (examples include Zip2 and PayPal).
  2. Help the competition. While it goes against the grain, Musk has pioneered the idea of benefitting the competition in more ways than one. Perhaps most significantly, he has gained long term investment in his supply chain by selling into the other OEMs. Namely, he provides electric powertrain components to other automakers, a relationship that has helped him make Tesla more viable. As another example, he has adopted open source methods for product development, namely with the Hyperloop concept and Tesla patents. Rather than developing and hoarding knowledge, he has provided a framework to the development community so it can realize industry-wide innovation at a faster rate. Sharing hard-won knowledge is an excellent ways to gain support and buy in, and can be used by any innovator seeking to disrupt the status quo.
  3. Develop a vision and share it. Musk has an uncanny ability to forecast what will be important in the future. In 2004, he began working with Tesla, even as the idea of electric vehicles had been sidelined as a niche market by major auto manufacturers. His goals aim high, focusing on sustaining the environment for generations to come through innovations such as those tied to energy sustainability and interplanetary colonization. Another Musk trademark is efficient transportation, such as his Hyperloop and Musk electric jet projects. To innovate like Musk, curate a range of projects that contribute to your vision, and make others take notice.
  4. Find inspiration around you. Reportedly the inspiration for Musk’s SolarCity concept was at Burning Man, the desert arts festival. Musk takes in the environment, sees opportunity, and expresses concepts that fulfill wants and needs. His style is an excellent example of finding and making great use of the inspiration that’s all around.

Consider adapting some of Musk’s signature strategies into your toolkit for bringing dramatic change to your industry. If you can ship, pull in supporters from all corners, crystallize and share a vision, and draw on your environment to continue generating new ideas, you are well on your way to innovating like Elon Musk.

Spark Innovation the Renaissance Florence Way

When considering how innovation stacks up, it can be difficult to gauge who has the most lasting impact in real time. When we go back in time, it’s easier to read innovation more clearly, without the distraction of brands and details about technologies. Suddenly, the question becomes “did the work stick”? And the stickier the work was, the more effective the innovation.

For that reason, I was intrigued by Eric Weiner’s Harvard Business Review piece “Renaissance Florence Was a Better Model for Innovation than Silicon Valley Is.” Talk about a compelling title–everyone wants to be the Silicon Valley of their industry, and yet Weiner has pointed out what is lacking in that fabled land of innovation.

Weiner presents several principles of an innovative climate, two of which I’d like to share. Taking a look at the novice-master relationship, he suggests that people today move out of the apprentice stage quicker than necessary. In contrast, Florentine Leonardo da Vinci remained an apprentice for 10 years before beginning his remarkably innovative career.

“… Why did Leonardo stay an apprentice for so long? He could easily have found work elsewhere, but he clearly valued the experience he acquired in the dusty, chaotic workshop. Too often, modern-day mentoring programs, public or private, are lip service. They must instead, as during Leonardo’s time, entail meaningful, long-term relationships between mentors and their mentees.”

Mentorship has a huge impact on growth, and we ought to do a better job feeding those relationships. At the same time, Weiner feels that a candidate with great potential but relatively little experience might just be the best choice to deliver results–even if he has not achieved in the same arena previously.

“When Pope Julius II was deciding who should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was far from the obvious choice. Thanks to the Medici patronage, he had become well-known as a sculptor in Rome as well as Florence, but his painting experience was limited to small pieces — and little in the way of frescoes. Still, the pope clearly believed that, when it came to this ‘impossible’ task, talent and potential mattered more than experience, and he was right. …”

In this way, we err on the conservative side when we insist the best for the job has already done the job. The Renaissance atmosphere allowed for granting a relatively inexperienced painter the opportunity to create a magnum opus work–isn’t that an environment we should remake? Frequently I discuss the importance of mentorship in the arts, because I feel that mentorship is vital for mentees in gaining experience, as well as for mentors who have a need to give back. I think we as a culture would spark innovation by recreating some of these Renaissance conditions for artists today.

Innovation Grows When Creatives Are Constrained

Over Indulgence May Not Be the Path to the Best Work

In an attempt to attract talent and drive innovation, today’s leaders often give seemingly endless perks to creatives. But as Eric Weiner argues in his Los Angeles Times OpEd “All those office perks? They’re ruining creativity” the investment might not be getting the desired results. So what is the best way to encourage creative, innovative work?

Weiner describes the benefits landscape: “We are living in the Decade of Perks. Companies are falling over one another offering workers such goodies as squash courts, hoverboards, lap pools, nap zones, pet care and more. What began as a Silicon Valley fad has spread to corporate America writ large. […] Urban planners, meanwhile, are doing much the same, only on a larger scale, desperately trying to lure the so-called ‘creative class’ with hip restaurants, theater districts and other cultural bonbons.”

Is the net impact of all these comforts in today’s creative offices worth it? In Weiner’s view, the outcomes aren’t necessarily commensurate with the investment. Overall, he estimates, today’s creatives fall short in comparison to creative masters in the past, many of whom had significant struggles and discomforts.

“Although well-intentioned CEOs assume the best way to foster creativity is to remove all obstacles, considerable evidence suggests the opposite is true. In one classic study, Ronald Finke, a professor of psychology at Texas A & M University, asked participants to create an art project. Some people were given a wide range of materials, others little. Finke and his colleagues found that the most creative work was done by those with the fewest choices — that is, with the most constraints.”

An excellent example of a group that inspired themselves and others to great lengths by invoking constraints: the Dogme 95 filmmakers. The group wrote a manifesto with rules that simplified filmmaking and were, cofounders Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg said, a response to high-cost budgets in filmmaking. In this case, dozens of films, many critically acclaimed, have been made using Dogme 95 principles. As in Weiner’s examples, it seems our creativity can diminish in the midst of excess. Perhaps more creatives might consider similar ways to pare down options in creative endeavors. While it may be arbitrary, the results can be transformational–as our creativity and problem-solving skills kick into high gear. By setting basic guidelines to constrain our tendency to overindulge, we can encourage creators to bring their best work.