Lessons from Elon Musk on Innovation


Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy.[1]

Siltanen, Rob. Forbes. “The Real Story Behind Apple’s ‘Think Different’ Campaign”. 12/14/2011.

I stumbled across this suggested post on Reddit with the headline, “Has Elon Musk gotten anything right with regards to self-driving cars?” There are many lessons we can learn from Elon Musk on Innovation if we pull this question apart.

There’s a book about predictions about large technological milestones. It changed how I view futurist predictions and science reporting, too.

The book is titled, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn.[2]

The translation from German could have been better, but ultimately it is a useful read.

The basic nugget is that there is a cycle to scientific breakthroughs. Generally, scientific breakthroughs driven by business happens faster than that of academic The basic nugget is that there is a cycle to scientific breakthroughs. Generally, scientific breakthroughs driven by business happen faster than that academic science. Business-driven breakthroughs tend to have more unintentional side-effects on society, whereas academic-driven breakthroughs tend to be a bit more circumspect, but take forever-and-a-day to amount to anything because of egos, the validation study process, funding, etc.

II extrapolated from Kuhn’s controversial work using other sources, and have observed that most predictions are wrong. This was reinforced by Nassim Taleb [3] in his book, the amazing work being done by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Ph.D. [4] regarding structural racism, and many others.

So then what to believe about Elon Musk and his predictions?

  1. He’s a CEO and an engineer, not a scientist.
  2. He’s also a futurist and gets a lot of press coverage because he is:
    • A visionary
    • A rebel
    • Appeals to American populist culture by challenging the status quo
  3. He sets up his company to use hypothesis-based innovation product development practices: measure-learn-build-repeat[5]
    • Every one of his companies is generally out-innovating incumbent product-category enterprises at about a 5:1 ratio.
    • He can release new versions of his product faster than most companies can know what product to build
    • His companies build sensors/telemetry that feeds cognitive machines for human-computer deep-learnings and insights where traditional/incumbent companies are still using traditional mass-production, product management practices from the 1960’s/1970’s (aka “Build it and they will come”), which the Cluetrain Manifesto calls out as no longer workable in the Digital Era

So is he wrong about his predictions? Of course, he is.

Are his predictions being given more airtime than they should because he is perpetually wrong? Of course. It’s called, “Celebrity CEO” status, and why the SEC is after him. That’s what Innovators do.

VisVisionaries are always this way. They “Think Different”™.

[1] Chou, Yu-kai. Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (p. 73). Octalysis Media. Kindle Edition.
[2] Kuhn, Thomas S.. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
[3] Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto). Random House Publishing Group.
[4] Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies . HarperCollins.
[5] Chou, Yu-kai. Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards (p. 73). Octalysis Media. Kindle Edition.

The Three Roles We Play at Work

In coaching or counseling colleagues, friends and people I meet going through a career transition, I often find myself having to explain the three roles we play at work. I noticed recently that these three roles don’t seem to be obvious to many, while simultaneously most folks seem to have some similar notion of them at a subconscious level. This series of posts is meant to document the Three Roles. My aim is to help people be more deliberate in how they show up at work, and how they think about the way they mature their craft.

The Three Roles are:

  • The Pair of Hands (PoH)
  • The Subject Matter Expert (SME)
  • The Trusted Advisor (TA)

While I find most people are always acting in some blended form of these roles, it is useful in processing the social contract between yourself and your colleagues above you, peers, and those more inexperienced. It is also a useful meta-model for helping others be successful in their role as it helps them have a clear understanding of what is being asked of them, and what successfully fulfilling that ask looks like… not just “getting the work done”.

In Part Two, I’ll discuss the role of The Pair of Hands. In Parts Three and Four I’ll discuss The Subject Matter Expert (SME) and the Trusted Adviser (TA), respectively. Finally, in Part Five, I’ll close with an anecdote that shows fluidly working in all three roles.

As my some of my friends say, “Stay Frosty.”

The Joy of Rediscovery

Maggot Brain

“I get the joy of rediscovering you”

from Faithfully by Journey

This morning, thanks to the NY Times article covering the topic, I rediscovered Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain”. I’ve always had a thing for the Funk genre. Maggot Brain was this odd exploration for me. At the time I was also running through Blackness, cultural identity, and generally just extending my love of Sly and the Family Stone (thanks Dad for sharing that with me), and Earth, Wind, and Fire (a love I share with my wife… thank you for those tickets) to it’s natural places like George Clinton and Parliament.

Flash-forward to today and I found another great selection of “Music to Work to”.

What’s your favorite music to work to?

Buy me Stuff and Love Languages

Here is a link to my personal wish list. I’m posting this here because I’m always having relatives and friends who are trying to figure out what kinds of gifts to give me. Continue reading Buy me Stuff and Love Languages

List of Reading Lists

People ask me all the time where I keep my reading list. Well… my reading list is dynamic so posting a static version would be silly. So… by way of Internet Magic, I post links to the various reading lists I have.

READERS NOTE: I neither endorse nor disagree with any of the books in my list. They are just books and meant to be a compendium of ideas. To use the phrase coined in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, it is but a portion of my antilibrary [1].

1. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto) (p. 1). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The Most Powerful Question

I’ve always lived under the assumption that the question “Why” what the most powerful question. I’m now convinced there is a more powerful question that can unlock change in people. The question is, “What am I grateful for?” I just read this article on The Ladders written by UCLA researcher, Alex Korb, PhD. Alex is the author of the book, The Upward Spiral.

Previously I believed the question “Why?” to be the most powerful question. It came from Six Sigma and the Theory of Constraints thinking process: The Five Whys. The idea was that if I ask why something happened, and then why four more times, I can get to the root of causation in a complex adaptive system. With that knowledge, I then can determine what to change. The challenge with that is that it is rooted in the past, and the future is often difficult to ascertain. In systems theory we talk about “what to change” and “what to change to.” This presupposes that we know that what we are changing to is the right thing to change to and that there is one and only one best answer. The problem that lies there is that there are rarely only one option to change to and even rarer still is that we can know that changing something will achieve the desired effect without unintended consequences in a complex adaptive system (CAS). The only thing that can work is treating the presupposition of what to change to as a hypothesis and continuously adapt our hypothesis until we are actually changing the most appropriate thing to the appropriate target based on current reality of the next set of emerging results, and to do so in small iterative and incremental sets so that we minimize the unintended consequences.

This approach sounds logical on the surface and years of research has shown the approach to be a useful model… until it isn’t.

Enter “The Most Powerful Question”.

The challenge with the “Five Whys” exercise is that is suffers from current reality, negative bias. It focuses on only the negative, and subordinates the negative(s) to the positive. As a result, we often don’t leverage what is working right, and use the positive to reinforce anything that emerges as a good solution. In CAS, these are called reinforcing loops: the stuff that keeps a CAS in its current state, or the stuff that allows the CAS to exist in it’s future state.

This is what makes the question, “What am I grateful for?” such a profoundly powerful question. It helps us see the reinforcing loops that will make whatever future state or future self emerge and exist without recidivism. And while unintended consequences can and will happen, it gives us a framework to become resilient in the future state.

“What am I grateful for?”

Today I am grateful for knowing that most powerful question.

Performance Management Programs and Annual Appraisals

Originally posted August 12, 2013. Updated October 20, 2015 with newer data.

Corporations adopting Agile practices on their way towards being Agile often struggle with many legacy operational policies and procedures. One question that always comes up is how to conduct performance management appraisals with employees when Agile Teams are supposed to be Self-Directed, Self-Managed and mostly autonomous? Adobe[1] and Motorola[2] have given us two good examples of successful transformations. Most companies not wanting to jump that far just yet don’t know where to go. This article will cover one of many paths we are exploring/piloting with some of our clients.

The typical scenario we find in organizations is a line manager who is responsible for the management of a team or group of teams, who is also responsible for the career development plans and performance appraisals of the people within those teams or groups. This has always proven to be a fool’s errand for managers. As New York Times[3] columnist Phyllis Korkki notes:

Many businesses feel that they must use formal reviews and rankings to create an objective measurement of performance and goals, so that managers can reward and promote good employees, and give poorly performing ones a chance to improve (while creating a paper trail in case they must be dismissed).

Making matters worse, in the mid–90s, a popular system for front-line employees emerged from GE’s Jack Welch which
stated that employees should be lined up along a three-piece bell curve: the top 20% would get rewarded, the middle 70% would be told how to improve, and the bottom 10% would be discarded. This is called forced or stack ranking; according to an in-depth Vanity Fair report[4], it’s the system that “crippled” Microsofts ability to innovate.

The system at Microsoft, pitted employees against one another in an attempt to reward the best and weed out the rest. However, the system back-fired. Former employees have been quoted[5] as feeing helpless and rewarded to “backstab their co-workers.” Bill Hill, a former manager, is quoted in Fast Company Magazine as saying, ”I wanted to build a team of people who would work together and whose only focus would be on making great software. But you can’t do that at Microsoft.”[6]

It is also the system still used by many of our clients and the reason why we find their cultures lacking innovation, trust, and employee engagement. We are finding the very behavior illustrated in the 2006 MIT study[7] that stated, “… the rigid distribution of the bell curve forces managers to label a high performer as a mediocre. A high performer, unmotivated by such artificial demotion, behaves like a mediocre.”

Motorola had a similar stack-ranking system which they dropped in 2013. Then CEO Greg Brown, noted in Crain’s Business Journal[8] that, “People had an unbelievable focus on their rating. So we decided to forget the rating and just link performance to pay more directly. You no longer have a forced bell curve, which can be demoralizing and can create a culture of infighting.”

Fortunately for Microsoft, stack-ranking was dismantled in late 2013/early 2014. Not so for Yahoo, which decided in the same time period to adopt stack-ranking. Yahoo later backed-off of stack ranking but it appears it has had a lasting effect. One of many bad decisions that have had a lasting effect. Motorola also made a number of mistakes too. They linked performance to pay, which the Federal Reserve study quoted in Dan Pink’s book, Drive, showed is largely a disincentive for most knowledge workers.

Which company is doing well? Microsoft is turning around. Yahoo is on life-support as of this writing. Motorola has had to sell-off most of its business units at fire-sale rates leaving only a former shell of itself to struggle to compete in the commercial and defense communications markets.

At face value, it was never the annual performance review that was the problem. It was that the line manager that didn’t do a great job of ensuring the context, contents and resulting rewards matched reality. Very few line managers have the line-of-sight to knowledge workers daily lives. Complicating the matter is the very definition of a knowledge worker: someone that knows more about a domain then their manager. Now ask that very same line manager to stack-rank their reports. The results have largely been disastrous. Using a system meant for judging the performance of factory work in the early 1900s, we attempted to adapt it to services organizations and knowledge work when we should have just replaced it entirely.

Some companies attempted to do just that in the 1990s recognizing the new era of knowledge work. In the 1990s it emerged as a method for reviewing and improving the performance of managers. It has been extended and used with employees at all levels.

My favorite commentary on the 360 Review comes from PerformanceAppraisals.org. In their article[9] on the “Strengths of 360-Degree Feedback Schemes” they state:

The 360-degree feedback process involves collecting information about performance from multiple sources or multiple raters. For example, a review of a manager’s performance might involve collecting data, opinions, and observations from his or her employees, immediate supervisor, colleagues, and even customers. A review of an employee without supervisory responsibilities might entail eliciting the perceptions of his or her supervisor, customers, and colleagues. Typically those perceptions are collected using a rating system, so in a sense 360-degree feedback is a subset of the ratings method, with all the advantages and drawbacks of any rating system.

The theory makes sense. If you want to improve performance, you can learn more by taking into account the perspectives of a number of “involved parties,” rather than only the perspective of the employee’s immediate supervisor. The implementation, however, is problematic.

Clouding the issue considerably is that the sale of 360- degree feedback instruments, particularly computer-based tools to make the process easier, has become a huge and very lucrative business. Because of the amount of money involved in the industry, there’s a huge level of hyperbole and a lot of exaggerated success stories out there. The 360 method has become one of the more common “management fads.” That’s not to say it can’t be useful, but often the problems associated with it are ignored in favor of an unbalanced focus on its strengths.

So what is the company to do when transforming themselves?

The goal should be to get to a system more like what Adobe Systems did in late 2012. They replaced their system with “check ins”. Some companies choose to jump straight to that once they have the basic organizational structures to support agility in place. (e.g. Scrum or Kanban with a Scaled Framework around it like SAFe) Others chose what I’ll outline here.

One option we are seeing happen a lot is the 4-part Performance Review. The review is broken down as follows:

  • Part One: 1/3 of the score is a 360-Review from the team.
  • Part Two: 1/3 of the score is a more traditional regarding career development goals
  • Part Three: 1/6 of the score is the Team’s Performance to all of the delivery metrics (build the thing right and the right cadence)
  • Part Four: 1/6 of the score is the Team’s Performance to all of the Pirate metrics (build the right thing)

The critical piece to make this work is to make sure all of the instrumentation is in place to make quantitative judgements.

Deeper Dive into the Performance Appraisal

To ensure that the performance appraisal is fair and an accurate representation of individual performance to plan, lets first discuss what a Performance Appraisal is and isn’t.

Again, from Performance-appraisals.org, there is a difference between Performance Appraisal and Performance Management. Performance Management. The Performance Appraisal is part of an overall Performance Management program. Where Performance Management is about the entire system of managing the performance of the organization, the performance appraisal is the natural end-point for assessing how an individual did during the performance period. It started with the development of a strategic plan that became and operational plan that became a tactical plan which became an individual development plan (sometimes called a Personal Development Plan or Professional Development Plan).

The performance management program is “an ongoing communication process, undertaken in partnership, between an employee and his or her immediate supervisor that involves establishing clear expectations and understanding”[10] Topics of collaboration should include:

  • the essential responsibilities of the employee
  • how the employee’s job contributes to the goals of the organization
  • what “doing the job well” means in concrete qualitative and quantitative terms such as specific markers for skills mastery using a framework such as the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition and Bloom’s Taxonomy to inform goals in Hard Skills (Content or Technical Skills) and Core Skills (Soft Skills).
  • how employee and supervisor will work together to sustain, improve, or build on existing employee performance including professional continuing education goals
  • how job performance will be measured (What does below expectations, meets expectations and exceeds expectations really mean?)
  • identifying impediments to performance and removing them

From every work written about Performance Management, it requires regular, two-way dialogue between the performance management (line-manager) and the employee. The emphasis should be on learning and improving.

Note that Performance Management isn’t:

  • something that happens to an employee without their input
  • a means to dictate how a person is to work
  • used only for performance remediation
  • checking the box once a year

If I get some time, I’ll walk through one transition plan to the type of Performance Management program Adobe is using.

HINT: They call them “Check-ins” and it happens almost every week. It kinda sounds like a Retrospective. The 360-degree appraisals should happen once a quarter and be like a private retrospective. If using SAFe, consider using the Program Increment (PI) Inspect and Adapt (I&A) as the point for the 360-degree review and resetting goals.


  1. D. Baer, “Why Adobe Abolished The Annual Performance Review And You Should, Too,” Business Insider, 10-Apr–2014.  ↩
  2. J. Pletz, “The end of ‘valued performers’ at Motorola,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 02-Nov–2013.  ↩
  3. P. Korkki, “Invasion of the Annual Reviews,” The New York Times, Job Market, 23-Nov–2013.  ↩
  4. K. Eichenwald, “How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo: Steve Ballmer and Corporate America’s Most Spectacular Decline,” Vanity Fair, Aug–2012.  ↩
  5. J. Brustein, “Microsoft Kills Its Hated Stack Rankings. Does Anyone Do Employee Reviews Right? – Businessweek,” Bloomberg-Businessweek, 13-Nov–2013.  ↩
  6. D. Baer, “Performance Reviews Don’t Have To Be Absolutely Awful,” FastCompany, 02-Dec–2013.  ↩
  7. C. Vaishnav, A. Khakifirooz, and M. Devos, “Punishing by Rewards: When the Performance Bell-curve Stops Working For You,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, Masters Thesis, 2006.  ↩
  8. J. Pletz, “The end of ‘valued performers’ at Motorola,” Crain’s Chicago Business, 02-Nov–2013.  ↩
  9. Bacal & Associates, “Strengths Of 360-Degree Feedback Schemes,” The Performance Management & Appraisal Resource Center.  ↩
  10. Bacal & Associates, “What Performance Management ‘Is’ And ‘Isn’t,’” The Performance Management & Appraisal Resource Center.  ↩

Striving to be a Son of Light

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter” — Yoda

I was watching Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back and this quote struck me given the scenes of Obi Wan and Qui-Gon as spirits in various episodes. What struck me is the following: our bodies are made of comic dust from stars that essential subatomic particles fused together due to gravitational forces. Yet we are sentient beings. How is that possible? Atheists have no reasonable explanation. As such, a certain “top of the food chain” pride sometimes creeps into our culture. Take the following example from a former Christian zealot:

“No one can stop us now ‘Cause we are all made of stars” — Moby

Me… I’m going to make it a point of not being prideful. Instead, I shall recognize my place in the universe as explained by the following passage.

27 “ Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. 34 So the crowd answered him, “ We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.
(John 12:27-36 ESVST)

Lessons learned about being a fast-follower from driving around a new rental car

I don’t normally write reviews of automobiles.

I felt compelled to write this one because of its relationship to addressing market demands. The car I drove this week was obviously targeted at a hyper-niche of the global automotive market: The Millennials. The design concepts are what I think are a good example learning how to penetrate a market using good enough design that is hyper-targeted.

This week I find myself driving a brand new Hyundai Veloster, 2+1 door Kammback. It is a zippy little car even with the low-end engine that you get from a rental car dealer. The thing that strikes me is that the design seems to be a direct rip-off and mashup of a Renault Mégane RS or Renault Mégane III, and a Nissan 370Z. The ride feels controlled, tight, but unrefined. In Boston, I felt every single groove, rut, crack, bump and pothole on every single road… in my back. It was rather jarring. I loved the quite refined instrument cluster and controls, especially the sport mode 6-speed twin-clutch transmission and steering-wheel mounted, paddle shifters. I didn’t like the environment and audio controls. The door-mount controls for windows and mirrors were… silly with a handle going over the top of them so my big, drummer hands couldn’t find the controls without stopping and looking. The center entertainment and information screen was huge, and bright… so bright I wanted to scream at night when I couldn’t figure out how to get the brightness controls to work (they didn’t).

Driving it while wearing sunglasses and my typical Euro-preppy clothes made me wonder if people might think I’m a guy going through a mid-life crises.

What can we learn about hyper-local marketing from Hyundai’s example?

  1. The overwhelming success of The Fast and the Furious franchise has fueled a generation of kids who want something sexy and sporty, but something that is at least green-washed and affordable. By leveraging existing media penetration, Hyundai is able to figure out a really specific niche market to target… translation… a real Fast-Follower doesn’t just pay attention to successful trends, but also delivers quickly on the heels of the Innovators and Early-Adopters. Hyundai know who the Mavens and Salesmen for the Innovators and Early-Adopters of this class of vehicle, and has figured out how to iterate quickly on a niche-market design that is targeting the Connectors and Salesmen for the Early Majority which can’t afford the cars featured in The Fast and the Furious such as the Mitsubishi Lancer or Nissan NSX.
  2. Copyrights don’t handle “Stealing like an Artist” well, so many companies can get away with similar but not the same designs. In this case, Hyundai is appealing to their market niche’s tastes for more expensive and refined designs.

Hyundai definately knows how to ripoff the best parts of other designs, but I really wish they would learn how to build a car that doesn’t have hokey controls. Companies learning to mimic Hyundai’s approach might be able to reduce their innovation costs by being a fast-follower, but to do so they will have to learn to be hyper-local and/or hyper-targeted at a specific niche.

Hyundai Veloster
Hyundai Veloster

Nissan Fairlady Z34
Nissan Fairlady Z34

Renault Mégane III RS
Renault Mégane III RS

“A Musician Must Make Music…”

 “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.” — Abraham Maslow

I had the rich pleasure to hear the William Peace University Peace Singers and Florida College Saturday night. That evening the Florida College students were spread amongst many volunteers hosts for lodging. Music has always been a part of my life. Music is largely why I love anything or anyone. In our home I have several percussive instruments, a piano, an electronic keyboard, a synthesizer, and a violin. We made sure that our guests understood just how important is in our lives as we drove from the theater to home. This morning, we had the distinct pleasure of hearing our guests playing our piano and fiddling around with various pieces of music in Jennifer’s deep locker of sheet music.

What struck me is that the guests were nervous staying with complete strangers. The way that they coped with the stress of being on the road and staying in the homes of complete strangers was by doing what comes natural… making music. The words of Maslow never became so real to me than at that point.

Turning to work, I realized if business leaders would let people do what gives them peace, then those leaders will always be rewarded with the sweet sounds of people at their best.

The implications are inescapable. Business leaders have to find people who’s passion is the work they are to perform. You must place people in positions that play to their strengths, not just making up for weaknesses. You must place people in cultures that encourages them to do that which they love to do. You must place people in physical environments that support the kind of work they love. And the work has to be the kind of work that creates intrinsic reward, the kind that fuels that passion within them. But it’s more than that, you have to create situations that let people make mistakes that they can learn and recover from.

Are you trying to make sure you create an environment where people can just be the best at what they do? Have you hired people that actually want to be best at what you need done? If you haven’t done these two things, I suggest you make a plan to course correct. You are missing out on the best parts of work life: watching people become fascinated with being the best. Fuel the passion!

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