“A.I. will be able to do everything better than humans over time!” Everything!” — Elon Musk
Last Tuesday, on December 8th, Elon Musk sat down with Matt Murray, the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal. The two men kicked off their talk discussing Musk’s recent departure from Silicon Valley for greener entrepreneurial pastures in Texas. Halfway through their discussion, however, I perked up as the conversation turned to innovation
Fortunately, until the machines take over, Musk believes innovation is learnable and not only reserved for the lucky few who were born with this skill.
Musk has talked extensively in the past about ways to be more innovative. He’s a vocal supporter of operating from first principles which entail boiling a process down to the fundamental truths and reasoning up from there. He’s also shared more than a few thoughts in the past about the importance of reading and surrounding yourself with people who see things differently than you. While speaking to Matt, Elon added to his tips by sharing 3 simple questions he recommends consistently asking ourselves to better hone this skill.
Ask yourself: Have you tried it?
When asked how one can be more innovative, without hesitation Musk replied, “Step one would be to try it.” He continued, “Have you tried it? Have you tried hard? If you haven’t tried hard, try hard!”
This may sound like an overly basic place to start. But even if you’re not an entrepreneur, how much time have you wasted building castles in the sky instead of getting in the dirt? At the end of the day, planning is ultimately guessing — and when it comes to innovation whether you’re building a new product or trying to become a stronger writer or artist, you gotta develop an experimental mindset to identify what works and learn more about what doesn’t.
Ask yourself: Is your product as good as it could be?
Musk has a reputation for not mincing his words. During his conversation with Matt, he stayed true to form saying that the MBA-ization of America may not be a good thing for business as too many people in leadership positions put spreadsheets and profits before product when it should be the other way around.
For Musk, innovation isn’t some mysterious thing and it doesn’t need to be some big breakthrough. According to Musk, it’s basically being just an absolute perfectionist about that product or service that you make.
In the past, Musk has said that the single best piece of advice is to have a feedback loop and to constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself. While speaking with Matt, he stressed this importance again by recommending we seek out negative feedback from both people who are already customers and those who aren’t.
Ask yourself: Are you spending more time in conference rooms than on the factory floor?
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Musk implied that his breakthroughs came from “doing” instead of sitting around making projections: “When I spend too much time in conference rooms, that’s generally when things have gone awry. And when I go spend time on the factory floor, or really using the cars, or thinking about the rockets, that’s when things have gone better.”
In addition to repeatedly encouraging entrepreneurs and leaders to be more hands-on in product development during the interview, he also stated — quite passionately — that getting out of the conference room and onto the factory floor boosts employee engagement:
“Nobody bleeds for the prince in the palace! Get out there on the goddamn front-line and get out there and show you care and you’re not just in some plush office somewhere.”
If you’re an entrepreneur, Musk’s questions shouldn’t come as a surprise and they may even seem obvious. But if I’ve learned anything as an entrepreneur over the last two decades and as a mentor at various accelerators including Startupbootcamp in the past, it’s that simple advice is often the best advice.
Both innovation and entrepreneurship aren’t for the hesitant. Nor are they for those who get easily discouraged. You gotta tinker. You gotta build upon what went right and learn from what went wrong. You gotta get out from behind the desk and into the weeds.
And then you have to do it again. And again. And again.
After all, innovation is simply asking yourself how you can make something better and then putting in the work to make it great.