Elon Musk and his companies have never been known for timeliness. A number of Tesla's cars have been late, with the Model X having run three years behind schedule. A promise of launching tourists in an automated rocket for a trip around the moon and back in 2018 has experts in space exploration raising their eyebrows in skepticism.
But Musk may have hit on a way to push himself to deliver at least one project in a timely way: Make it free if it's late. And a new development this week has put him thoroughly on the hook.
A few months ago, Musk said he could end power shortages in South Australia with a massive battery storage farm within 100 days of signing a contract. When someone on Twitter challenged whether he'd be able to deliver on the promise, Musk tweeted the following:
Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 10, 2017
Musk is betting on increased capacity at his battery factory to manufacture the system and officially announced the project this week. The battery system -- three times larger than the next biggest one, according to Musk -- will be paired with a wind farm. Musk's car company, Tesla, is working with a French renewable energy firm on the project.
It's a bold move and one anyone can learn from, including Musk himself. Getting projects done on time is often tricky, with the following factors frequently playing big roles:
- People overestimate their own abilities.
- They overestimate the capacities of the people they work with and the systems they use.
- There's inadequate allowance for outside conditions that could affect the project, which means planning is short-sighted.
- There's no plan B.
- People fail to budget enough resources to get the work done.
- Those involved don't take the deadlines seriously enough.
- Failure to meet deadlines lacks significant consequences.
There is no way to tell at this point whether Musk will succeed in meeting the deadline. His history would suggest otherwise. But he's made an important step toward remedying his shortcomings. By imposing such a massive penalty -- if it's not delivered on time, it's free -- Musk has created big consequences and shown that he's taking the deadline seriously. Putting himself under that type of restriction is new.
Success will depend on how well he and his management team can address the other factors. He may still fall short if he has been too optimistic in his projections. But there is something working in his favor.
Rather than discussing a project that requires new development and engineering, like a new car or a trip to the moon, he's looking at current production capacities, which is an operational issue. This is the difference between guessing how long it will take before you can start making a product and having an existing factory with a track record. There is no theory involved, only the availability of raw materials, factory capacity, and availability of personnel plotted against time.
And that may be the biggest point of all. When you're going to set deadlines, make sure you understand the nature of the task happening under the countdown. Creating something entirely new is an innovative activity that doesn't necessarily work on set schedules. Keep the hard promises to what can be measured and controlled. You still may hit snags, and still should plan for the possibility, but your promises will be on firmer ground.
That said, with the push for batteries to deliver to South Australia, you have to wonder whether production of Tesla's electric vehicles may see just a tiny hiccup over the next few months.