When you saw the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch last month, what did you think?
A launch, a jettison, a Looney Tunes-esque double reentry and landing. And then… What?!! The nose cone is opening! A flying Tesla is emerging! Starman! And the shimmering soundtrack of David Bowie! And what, pray tell, of the center core?
Or, was your interpretation more strategic? Stunning vision meets (nearly) flawless execution? Engineering and aerospace triumph? A badly needed smile and “W” in the win-column for the grit-n-gumption of Team USA?
All I can say is, I was impressed. Really, really impressed. Genuinely mouth-agape-with-laughter impressed at the sheer audacity of it all.
And then I wondered: At what pivot point in the trajectory of his career did Mr. Musk (and many, many other talented folks along for his ride) muse, “Hey, we’ve done a digital payments BPaaS, the most innovative cars in a couple generations … Now, how about we think about rockets to Mars?”
According to the Guardian, Elon Musk’s strategic pivot point to SpaceX came when ruminating about the fall of the Roman Empire:
“… armed with this fortune, he turned to space exploration… [Musk said] ‘Let's say you were at the peak of the Roman Empire, what would you do, what action could you take, to minimize decline?’... The answer is in technology. ‘Given that this is the first time in 4.5bn years where it's been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we'd be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact it will be open a long time.’"
Formula for a Vision
In fact, if you really pull back and look at Elon Musk’s SpaceX vision, in the words of Tim Urban of “Wait by Why” fame, here’s the rationale (as is the case for all of Elon Musk’s businesses). Always start backward from “Increased Chance Of A Good Future”, and work through to “Result Of A Goal”, to “The Goal”.
Or, running forward, with SpaceX itself in the equation:
1) Strategically, The Goal is “Human Life is Sustainably Multi-planetary”;
2) the Result of the Goal is “Life Insurance for the Species”;
3) the Result Of The Result Of The Goal “Reduced Existential Risk”;
4) which finally gets us to "Increased Chance of a Good Future"
Many tech and industry leaders bandy around terms like “moonshot”, wanting to marshal whatever they think “the Apollo mission” of their firms of our time, but without a coherent vision. You can hear the water cooler conversations now: “We can send a man to the moon, but we can’t digitally enable a can of ham.”
That’s why the V-I-S-I-O-N is so important. According to author Eric Ries, The Vision allows you to pivot in your strategy, while adhering to the goal. In other words, keeping eyes on the prize.
So, that means that pivots are good. Why? They keep things moving to attain The Vision. And – like the military maneuvers these terms are derived from - pivots mean not getting bogged down in the daily mud slog of tactics.
When Pivots are Inadvertent
Sometimes pivots are inadvertent. Case in point: take George Lucas and the walnut tree.
George Lucas was able to birth Star Wars, Athena-from-the-head-of-Zeus-like, because as a teenager, he catastrophically crashed his Italian hot-rod into a walnut tree in his hometown of Modesto, California. Being laid up in the hospital recovering for weeks led to a reevaluation of life. Putting hot-rodding behind him, he decided to go to film school and start making movies. Then, he was denied the cinematic rights to re-make Flash Gordon, one of his favorite childhood serials.
So he started writing – painfully -- his own Space Opera, which began, unpromisingly as “The Star Wars: The Adventures of Luke Starkiller, as taken from the Journal of the Whills”. The rest is history, taking his fame, and fortune – and the rest of humanity – to the stars in a galaxy far, far away. All his life Lucas has felt the need for speed. He says being a filmmaker was a biological necessity.
"I'm doing exactly the same thing you do in an amusement park," he says. "I love things that are fast. That's what moved me toward editing rather than photography. Pictures that move – that's what got me where I am."
The Real “Right Stuff”
Forget about pretend celestial bodies; how did a pivot in the “future of work” of the past lead to sending real, live human beings to the dusty ground of Tranquility Base on the moon?
In 2016, I shot this video at the US Rocket and Space center in Huntsville, Alabama. One of the docents I met just so happened(!) to be the lead materials scientist and procurement chief for the Apollo program.
How did he embark on a career path that resulted in helping send Neil Armstrong and Co. to the moon? Here’s a pivot for the ages: He recalled signing on to an Air Force initiative to build nuclear powered bombers. (“Hey, if it’s good enough for the Navy and their carriers, and submarines, why not our USAF bomber fleet? What could POSSIBLY go wrong?”). Until some bright person realized that – with even one plane crash spewing radioactive material everywhere – that might now be the best idea.
Mission, NOT ACCOMPLISHED. Mission: scrapped.
“So what do I do now”? Pivot to the New Vision, and the New Goal, sixties-style. Would you like to send men to the moon? Uh, yes I would… “Meet Wernher von Braun, former SS officer in charge of obliterating our old friends in London with V-2 rockets, now supercharging the nexus of science and engineering to achieve man’s greatest adventure (oh, and we’ll do it in less than ten years – Mr. Kennedy says so)”. Bedfellows, meet “Stranger Things”.
And so it was done.
I’m sure it was not without challenges. Like Apollo 1 burning on the pad. Or Apollo 13, when failure really is NOT an option. Or, the Challenger, or Columbia tragedies. What can you do? Reflect. Maybe get really drunk, shake it off, and go back to work the next day to try to figure it out.
And if you need to – pivot. The moon, Mars, and the stars await.