What We Can Learn From Elon Musk

Elon Musk and the SpaceX team launched Falcon Heavy into space on Feb. 6. The launch reminded me of when I watched the Apollo missions as a kid growing up in Izmir, Turkey. It symbolized the dawn of a new space age and making the impossible a reality. We might even watch a landing on Mars in our lifetime.

If the launch awakened the childlike sense of awe and wonder in me, watching Musk's press conference afterwards spoke to the designer in me. Musk is a designer at heart, and SpaceX rockets and spacecrafts are a feat of innovation and design. As he talked about what it took to bring Falcon Heavy to life, Musk gave us an important lesson in innovation that we can all use in our own industries.

1. Have the courage to try difficult things.

"It always seems impossible until it's done"--this quote from Nelson Mandela sums up Musk's approach to innovation. Many things, even on a smaller scale, seem impossible. And you will never know what will come of them if you don't try. Prototyping, demonstrating, failing, and retrying are part and parcel for the development of new ideas and innovation. To imagine the future based on what you know today takes courage.

"Crazy things can come true. When I see a rocket lift off, I see a thousand things that could not work, and it's amazing when they do."--Musk

Do you have the guts to do difficult things?

2. Be serious about play.

Sending his Tesla Roadster with Starman in the driver's seat and a display that says, "Don't Panic!" on the dashboard was a marketing feat. It spoke to the child in us and made it fun. But, most importantly, instead of putting a chunk of concrete as payload, the Roadster and its driver humanized the mission. Intuitively, we all identified with the Starman and imagined it as us going into space. 

And it wouldn't have happened if Musk and team had not nurtured play as part of their everyday serious work. Playfulness lets in the human element. It is especially critical when the stakes are high.

"Silly fun things are important."--Musk 

Are you being playful?

3. New takes time and it's hard.

As our tools become faster, there's an expectation for design to also become faster, more effortless, and easier. But it's not. What Musk said about how much time going from Falcon to Falcon Heavy took is revealing. New, ambitious things take time, and they're hard.

"We tried to cancel the Falcon Heavy program three times at SpaceX. Because it was like, 'Man, this is way harder than we thought.' The initial idea was just, you stick on two first stages as side boosters -- how hard can it be? Way hard."--Musk

Do you have the patience?

4. Design is creating something that looks good and performs well. 

This is the crux of design excellence. You can make something that looks good but performs badly. You can make something that performs well but looks poor. Good design is about making these two co-exist--a thing of beauty that also works well. Musk's description of the Starman's suit is a lesson to any leader involved in the craft of design:

"It took us 3 years to design that spacesuit. It's easy to make a spacesuit that looks good but doesn't work. Or that works but doesn't look good. It's really difficult to make a spacesuit that looks good and works."--Musk

What are you doing to mash-up beauty and performance?

5. Constraints are the opportunities.

The common wisdom for decades was that you couldn't reuse your boosters. SpaceX took that constraint, turned it on its head, and made reusable rocket boosters. This cuts costs, allows for faster launch cycles, and is one of the requirements for future Mars-landing-technology. Seeing the two boosters land back on the launchpad was a thing of beauty. It was also a lesson in how constraints can become your competitive advantage if you choose to question and challenge them. 

"The booster, I think--I don't want to get complacent, but I think we understand reusable boosters," Musk said. "Reusable spaceships, that's the hard part. We'll go to low-Earth orbit first, but we can go to the moon shortly after that."--Musk

What is a piece of common wisdom you can challenge in your industry?

This article first appeared on Inc.com on February 15, 2018