A Gen X relative recently sent me an article on Elon Musk’s Neuralink product that allows the brain to control computers using just thoughts. He said the product had “moves like Jagger.” I responded with a distinctively un-hip “uh-huh” and rushed to look up the meaning of “moves like Jagger”. Urban dictionary wasn’t much help. It said the term was another way of expressing something that had swag. Okaaaay – next lookup: what’s swag? For the more urban-linguistically challenged folks out there, swag means cool. OK, got it!
Back to the point, the Neuralink product would replace a small part of your skull with a chip about an inch in diameter which would control electrodes placed on neurons in the brain. That would allow electrodes to stimulate neurons to mimic the function of the brain. This would be used initially to overcome brain injury and trauma related problems. Longer-term though, there are a variety of possibilities including downloading languages directly into the brain. This Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) certainly has the moves like Jagger!
Well, Elon is certainly on a roll these days, isn’t he? Between the amazing run of Tesla, the recent successful launch of Space X’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying NASA astronauts, and a handful of other equally mind-blowing ventures on the side, not to mention a brand new baby boy, Elon’s unpredictable star is suddenly once again on the rise. Which brings me to my main topic. What would it take for us to have digital swag? Could we develop a few Musk-like skills, so we’d have at least a few minor moves like Jagger?
But, should we have Elon-like moves?
Elon is my #1 admired person for disruptive innovation, but to be honest, even if I could innovate like him (I can’t), I’m not sure that I would. Elon is one of the best examples in the world of a trailblazer in every sense of the word. His brand of innovation is to “conjure something into existence from the dark void of oblivion”. Or, as Peter Thiel (not on my list of heroes) calls it “going 0 to 1.” This is sexy but extremely difficult to do. The other type of disruptive innovation is “1 to n” – taking something that works and making it great (i.e. think creating iPod from mp3 players). This is the financially safer approach. You can still create disruptive products with this approach, but with more predictability. There’s a good reason why there’s only one Elon Musk!
Desirable digital swag we can pick up from Elon
But, fear not. Elon has plenty of other swag that we can pick up. Here are three things that I try to follow.
Manage by rhyming: Elon says his style is management by rhyming. He is reported to have said at a recent SpaceX event, “If the schedule is long, it’s wrong; if it’s tight, it’s right.” The digital world, and the resulting fourth industrial revolution, moves at a different pace than the world of the third industrial revolution. We were trained that between “better”, “faster” and “cheaper”, we could at best choose two. Not true any longer. I believe that most often, if you push for “faster”, you also get “better” and “cheaper” as side benefits.
Sleep on the factory floor: Elon is famously hands-on. When Tesla failed to meet its output for Model X SUVs, Elon moved into the factory for two weeks. He slept in a sleeping bag. He spent entire days triaging cars at the end of the line trying to identify the root cause issues. Eventually, he succeeded. This work ethic and persistence is critical during digital times.
War on bureaucracy: Elon is not a fan of meetings, hierarchy, or any system that interferes with immediate communication. Some of his “rules” include avoiding large-format meetings unless essential, preferring infrequent meetings unless there’s a crisis, feeling free to leave meetings where you’re not essential, avoiding jargon, contacting people directly without getting caught up in hierarchy, and my favorite, “don’t follow silly rules.”
Not surprisingly, these are principles consistently found in most digitally native companies.
The digital era can be unforgiving of old-world practices that stifle innovation. Fortunately, there’s more than one way to innovate. Elon is unique in his ability to create something from nothing. However, in all the noise of his exciting product creations, we shouldn’t lose sight of the basic disciplines that enable those disruptive products to see the light of day. And, that’s swag that we can all develop.