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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tesla, Musk & Projects without Precedent

      Elon Musk is something else – sort of a Paul Bunyan of project managers. You can read it all on Wikipedia.
     We’ve heard about dreamers, daredevils, winners and those incredibly focused people who get serious at a young age and achieve great things.
     Musk is all that. The work breakdown structure of his career includes work packages that have made him a multimillionaire while he tackles very big challenges. He continually diversifies and multiplies success.
     As a South African kid, he taught himself computer code and made $500 at the age of 12 selling a video game. He came to the U.S., did PayPal and made a bundle when Amazon bought it.
     He took Space X in seven years from nothing to the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon space freight vehicle. The Falcon9/Dragon combo was the first commercial space vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. He is visionary, a technical wizard and no slouch at sales and marketing, in-person and online.
   There’s plenty more going on, but you get the idea.
      Elon Musk arrived in the United States in 1972 via Canada, his mother’s country, where he had moved as a teen-ager after determining that would improve his chances of getting into the U.S.

    His current intentions include electrifying the American automobile fleet to control carbon pollution and putting humans on Mars in 10-20 years.
     The other day his Tesla Motors company opened free use of its electric vehicle patents to all “good faith” users. This was breathtaking to many observers of American industry, but it’s not naive. Musk wants electric propulsion to grow from its microscopic share of the automobile market, and getting more players in the field will enhance the prospects. He isn’t out to be a big auto magnate; he's in it to accelerate the development of electric cars.
     And don’t worry about exploitation by the major car companies. Hard experience has taught him how to safeguard the program.
     Tesla also sells electric powertrain systems to Daimler and Toyota. The  company is rapidly spreading its network of recharging stations in the U.S. and into Canada
     Musk originally patented the Tesla innovations to protect them from plunder by the big boys . . . but it turned out they weren’t interested.
      “The unfortunate reality,” he said, “is electric car programs (or programs for any vehicle that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons) at the major manufacturers are small to nonexistent, constituting an average of far less than one percent of their total vehicle sales.”
     So he has upped the ante by giving all those tinkerers out there permission to do the Linux thing  with electric auto technology.

     The Mars matter is more aspirational, but no less serious. Musk wants to prepare for the possibility that an asteroid strike, climate change or some other condition will make the earth uninhabitable, and he is convinced the human race needs to get going on a backup place if it is to ensure its survival. Reducing automotive pollution is just a piece of a much grander strategy.
     Still, this guy is marketing idealism as well as innovation. His many activities constitute one massive project, with some parts linked together and some not. Let’s just say that Elon Musk doesn’t allow himself to be trapped in everyday assumptions. Nor does he respect conventional limitations. He is imaginative and far-seeing – and a very hard, persistent worker.
     We project managers don’t have to be geniuses like Elon Musk to learn from his approach. He identifies a desired outcome, without worrying about precedent. If it’s worth going after, he gets clear on what it will take to get there, and sets out to do it. He breaks out constituent parts, such as financing, the auto industry and space technology, and creates successful businesses in those areas.
     He’s not a daredevil in the sense of making grand leaps without a safety net. His sequential successes in building wealth and investing it in ever-bigger projects shows sound risk management as well as vision, courage and superb planning.
     We can do it, too, in our modest enterprises. Swear off clutter. Clear up process. Set goals assertively and manage process competently. Nothing new there, but Elon Musk reminds us that doing it right can produce surprising results.
     There’s an inspiring clarity to it. Don’t rule out Mars.


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