1000 words: 5-minute read
What struck me about them was their vision. Relieving humanity of traffic congestion, helping us to not feel guilty about energy usage, getting around the world faster in rockets and hyperloops, colonising Mars, and protecting us from bad Artificial Intelligence all featured.
At the end of the interview Musk shunned the notion that he was acting in a “saviour like” capacity. He spoke of how “inspiration is underrated” and why doing what he does was driven by being able to “think about the future and not be sad.”
Musk founded Paypal and now heads up Tesla and SpaceX. He’s known for ambitious timetables that aren’t always met. But notwithstanding that, what he’s attempting to achieve – drastically reduced journey times, sustainable energy, space travel etc. – inspires me.
A visionary mindset
Musk has a mindset that’s similar to other entrepreneurs. This is captured in studies such as Built to Last, Good to Great and Firms of Endearment. These focused on how great companies are built, or turned around, and consistently create value that outstrips their nearest rivals. The leadership’s mindset is a critical part of the equation and has two characteristics: preserving core purpose and stimulating progress.
- Preserving core purpose
Entrepreneurs solve problems for many people. They don’t necessarily know how they’re going to do that at the outset, but they’re driven by their why – transforming people’s lives for the better.
Note profit is not the primary driver. That’s not to say it’s unimportant, more that it’s seen as a by-product of their why not the other way around. In fact the data show time and again that if your why is just about making money you won’t do so well.
A firm’s why or core purpose bonds investors, employees and customers together. It has a sustaining quality; it not only inspires at the outset but acts as a guide during tough times too. That’s why it needs preserving, it’s not something to alter on a frequent basis in the way we might change a strategy for example.
Variously described as BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) or The Hedgehog Concept (a single focus based on what you’re passionate about, what you can be best at, and what drives your economic engine) great companies have a very clear core purpose. “Bringing happiness to millions through a fanatical attention to detail, creativity, imagination and dreams” is an example that belongs to Disney.
- Stimulating progress
How purpose is brought to life can take many forms. Staying with the Disney example, they deliver happiness to millions through films, books, retail stores and theme parks.
One feature of progress is it’s innovative. By this I mean its superior to what’s been available before. It has a WOW factor.
Elon Musk thrives on this progress-as-innovation idea. During his interview he mentions several examples including “a 10-fold decrease in the cost per mile of tunnelling,” “solar roofs being an economic no brainer, looking good, lasting a lifetime and built as standard within 15 years,” and “a rocket that has four times the thrust of the largest ever built.”
He points out that jaw-dropping innovation like this isn’t inevitable, it requires a lot of hard work from people skilled in many different disciplines.
The WOW factor in Construction
In the early 90s I was wowed by a futurist book written by Alvin Toffler called The Third Wave. He introduced concepts like “the electronic cottage connected by an information super highway” (think your laptop at home connected to the internet,) and ‘pro-suming’ – fusing the production and consuming processes together so that cars for example are built to order.
Musk, like Toffler, brings latest developments in science and technology alive by describing what they can do for humanity. There are risks of course. Not least that technology has a sinister, dark side to it that could become harmful if we’re not careful. But to the entrepreneur’s way of thinking, these are simply problems that need resolving along the way to delivering something that’s of a greater benefit; they’re not showstoppers.
I know we in the Construction Sector don’t have the best of reputations for innovation. Plagued by familiar problems such as low productivity and predictability, having the mental space for it can be tricky.
But not impossible.
A new insight can show up at any time. It usually emerges when we’ve been mulling a problem over, talking to others about it and, because we’re relaxed, pieces of information come together in an unexpected configuration that not only make new sense, but compel us to act.
So I did some wondering.
I envisaged multi-disciplined teams from different fields inside and outside the Sector came together: architects, engineers, constructors, facilities managers, asset owners, asset users, technologists, psychologists, philosophers, educationalists etc. in a room. I wondered what they’d learn from each other if they had free reign on how they’re collective expertise could benefit large swathes of the population. And I experimented; doing some blue-sky thinking with friends and colleagues over a few glasses of Merlot; just to see what emerged.
Here’s what showed up:
- Beautiful buildings, self-sufficient in clean energy, with minimal running costs built in half the time
- Low-cost, made-to-order, 3-D printable homes
- Education facilities that bring out the best in students and help them become great citizens
- Workplaces that foster wellbeing, collaboration and creativity
- Hospitals that ooze love and care alongside state-of-the-art medicine
- Roads made from recycled materials that store energy
- Communities that have strong bonds and fulfilling family lives because they’ve re-imagined work in an age where there’s less of it due to robots and Artificial Intelligence
- Pop up villages that can be deployed in the event of large crises such as natural disasters or migration from war-torn zones
- Underground tunnels and transportation that get us from A to B in a fraction of the time it takes now (I know this is Musk’s hyperloop idea but here it was proposed as an alternative to HS2!)
- Prisons designed to dramatically reduce re-offending rates.
What would wow you in our Sector?