Photo: Victor Gonzalez Couso via Flickr
Elon Musk, the man who has started four four-billion dollar companies — PayPal, Solar City, SpaceX, and Tesla — is an engineer, a prophet of the upcoming war between humans and machines, and inventor who has continued to redefine the limit of what’s feasible to build in his quest to have self-driving trucks and rockets to outer space go mainstream in our lifetime.
To be a visionary, you have to build immunity to inevitable failures and naysayers calling your ideas crazy. Selling your idea to the masses starts with anticipating concerns and foolproofing the cracks and holes in your plan.
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In his recent sprawling profile in Rolling Stone, Musk shares the scientific method he applies to his businesses, so that he can catch problems before they become problems:
1. Ask a question.
2. Gather as much evidence as possible about it.
3. Develop axioms based on the evidence, and try to assign a probability of truth to each one.
4. Draw a conclusion based on cogency in order to determine: Are these axioms correct, are they relevant, do they necessarily lead to this conclusion, and with what probability?
5. Attempt to disprove the conclusion. Seek refutation from others to further help break your conclusion.
6. If nobody can invalidate your conclusion, then you’re probably right, but you’re not certainly right.
The Musk approach
Under this approach, nothing can be assumed or taken for granted, which is necessary when you’re inventing products without precedent. Yes, Musk’s idea for self-driving trucks needs to follow the laws of physics, but everything else can and will be negotiated and interrogated.
Musk said that most of us don’t apply this method to our own ideas, too tied to our own biases and assumption. Musk said we think “It’s true because I said it’s true,” but that method is “very unscientific.”
Harvard Business Review would call Musk a change-approach leader: a CEO who is focused on reinventing tomorrow, even if this focus on the process comes at the expense of a specific point of arrival, to the lament of anxious employees, and disgruntled stakeholders and customers.
Better late than early
Take Musk’s answer to Rolling Stone when discussing why Tesla’s Model 3 – the car with a nearly half-a-million-person-long waiting list — is behind schedule. Musk is notorious for promising ambitious ideas that don’t get delivered on schedule.
His response? “Better to do something good and be late than bad and be early.”
If this sounds like your motto, then take Musk as your guide to doing business. You may not get to Mars, but by applying his approach to scientific problems, you can build a better idea that can at least get off the ground.