If you just want to get what you’ve always gotten, keep doing what you’ve always done. If you want to change the old rules and get better, you’ve got to start aiming higher and thinking bigger. There’s always a best seat in the house, the best row at the show, and something desperately worth shooting for which we all know that you may not always get. But shame on you if you don’t at least go for it. If you don’t ask, the answer is always “No.” And today, I think there’s no better example of reaching for the stars for companies and entrepreneurs of every size than SpaceX and its semi-combustible founder Elon Musk.
Notwithstanding Elon’s current angst at his automobile firm, Tesla -; which is about nuts-and-bolts production, not vision -; the SpaceX engine that he built (almost as an afterthought) continues to fire on all cylinders. SpaceX is making the impossible seem commonplace, and raising the bar for big dreams being backed up by awesome deliverables. Dockless bikes, slick little scooters, and new offerings of gluten-free whatever all seem depressingly trivial compared with Elon’s grand ambitions.
Things in the space biz may take a little longer than expected, but some of the beneficial by-products may even turn out to be better than initially expected. The scale and the scope of what SpaceX has already achieved since it was founded in 2002 is unlike anything that has come before or after. Keep in mind that NASA was formed in 1958, more than 60 years ago, and these days it’s getting help from SpaceX in Hawthorne and taking Dream Chaser directions from the Sierra Nevada orbital vehicle builders in Louisville, Colorado. Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) has been in the “space” business since 2000 and he’s got bupkes to show for it. Richard Branson is another big talker with Virgin Galactic, which he founded in 2004, but it seems that he’s perpetually “just six months away” from being in space. Don’t hold your breath.
And, as you might expect, seeing in this case just makes believing that much easier. You can't visit the SpaceX factory without coming away with the overwhelming impression that there's a palpable sense of possibility and the belief that virtually anything is achievable with enough time, effort, and perseverance. This isn't some cheap Silicon Valley talk or “pie in the sky” (no pun intended) prediction. It's an outgrowth and extension of an attitude that is as compelling as it is contagious. And that attitude is backed in facts and in demonstrable results. These people are hard-core professionals -; engineers and scientists -; who spend their days head down making things happen. Elon does the dreaming, scheming and sweating, but these are the hundreds of people who get the job done every day.
They might technically be manufacturing machines and missiles, but what they really make here are “believers.” People who believe that the world is leaning in their direction and that success (albeit over time) is far more probable (not just possible) than any other outcome. I wish you could bottle this attitude because it's such a special combination of pride and practicality as well as concrete grounding and vast visioning that I think we should add it to the drinking water at every school and startup in the country.
So, what’s the main message from SpaceX for the rest of us? We need to look further and wider if we’re going to up the ante, make major changes, and leapfrog the competition. Using the best available data and basing our plans, programs and designs on real metrics and milestones (rather than make-believe) is an essential methodology. But, if it’s the only view you have of the future, you’ll find that your focus is far narrower than it should be and that your energies end up being directed mainly to short, sure wins instead of big jumps and new horizons.
This conservative approach leads to designs and choices that tend to be marginal improvements and incremental gains rather than game-changing moves. Successive approximation and consistent iteration are great tools (“getting a little better every day”), but the key word is “little” and what we need more and more of are bigger leaps and longer look-aheads.
Simply trying to keep getting closer and closer to a known goal is not enough, because that approach and that perspective can often keep us from looking further down the road and really thinking about going for the gold.