Ten reflections on Elon Musk that guided our HIF project
The widespread calls for greater innovation in the humanitarian sector and smarter ways of working demonstrates not just a system stretched to breaking point by crises around the world and aggravated by ever greater threats such as pandemics, which Bill Gates recently highlighted; but also funding models that are rarely sustainable.
‘Innovate or die’ is a mantra in the business sector, but there is no simple formula for how to do it. Innovation is not a process that can be defined in a logframe. There is no linear relationship between inputs, outputs and outcomes. It demands creativity, imagination and perseverance. Timing and the chemistry of the team are hugely important factors. Assessing whether all these factors are present in the mix is notoriously difficult to assess objectively. But can you learn something from serial innovators?
A few weeks ago when I was part of a team doing educational outreach at a local school, one of the questions I was asked by the children was ‘in a perfect world, who would I like on my team. I could not think of anyone better than the team I have. My co-presenter, reflecting on his organisation said ‘Elon Musk’. It made me wonder what advice Elon Musk might have given me.
A serial innovator, Elon Musk developed a powerful business model for online publishing, created the foundation for online payments (Paypal) and then has created companies like SolarCity , Hyperloop, SpaceX and others. He has a ‘systems view’ of innovation. It’s not about overcoming any one problem, but trying to be transformational. Innovation is not the driver, for Elon Musk it is also about solving problems he deeply cares about – the challenges facing humanity, and ensuring the solution has a lasting impact; and that demands fresh thinking.
Innovating does not mean you need to be radical. It can be about making small improvements across a wider range of activities. The culmination of all those small changes can lead you to do something you have never done before.
In reflecting on our HIF project there were ten Elon Musk quotes on the subject of innovation which seemed particularly apt.
- “The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.”
- “Constantly think about how you could be doing things better, and questioning yourself.”
- “Work like hell. I mean you just have to put in 80 to 100 hour weeks every week. [This] improves the odds of success. If other people are putting in 40 hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100 hour workweeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing, you know that you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.”
- “It’s OK to have your eggs in one basket as long as you control what happens to that basket.”
- “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.”
- “I think it is a mistake to hire huge numbers of people to get a complicated job done. Numbers will never compensate for talent in getting the right answer, they will tend to slow down progress, and will make the task incredibly expensive.”
- “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
- “There’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.”
- “Starting and growing a business is as much about the innovation, drive, and determination of the people behind it as the product they sell.”
- “Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.”
Innovation is not easy. It takes hard work, great timing, and a bit of luck. It also helps to have an entrepreneurial attitude, and have known success and failure. Sometimes innovation needs new organisations. Old organisations often struggle to adapt to new ways of thinking, so it may well be important to build a new organisation around a new idea. The HIF support has given us the opportunity to do just that.
It would be great to hear anyone else’s reflection on who they would choose to have on their team for a HIF funded project.