Can innovation be learned? The answer is yes, according to Elon Musk, one of the most innovative entrepreneurs of the modern era. During a candid and freewheeling interview with Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Matt Murray this week, Musk argued that creating innovative products is "absolutely learnable." It all comes down to answering a few simple questions, he said.
1. Have you tried it?
"Step one would be, try it," Musk said. "Have you tried it? Have you tried hard? If you haven't tried hard, try hard."
Innovation "is not some mysterious thing," he added. "It's basically being just an absolute perfectionist about the product or service that you make." It also doesn't need to be some big breakthrough, he added. "Just make your product better. This is the thing that really matters."
2. How can you make it better?
"Seek negative feedback from all quarters, from customers and from people who aren't customers," he said. "How can we make this better?"
While you're at it, you should be asking yourself and the people who work with you those same questions. "Think about, what would you love to have?" he said. "I've had this conversation at Tesla a few times where we don't love this product but we think others will love it. And you know, that's not really how it works. If you don't love it, don't expect others will, either."
3. Are you spending too much time in conference rooms?
"If you find yourself spending a lot of time getting presentations and reviewing spreadsheets, you're barking up the wrong tree," Musk said. "That's the effect, not the cause. So just get out there on the factory floor. Get out there in stores and talk to customers."
It's a lesson he himself has learned the hard way, he added. "When I spend too much time in conference rooms, that's generally when things have gone awry. And when I go spend time on the factory floor, or really using the cars, or thinking about the rockets, that's when things have gone better."
Being on the factory floor makes for more employee engagement, he added. "Think about war," he said. "Do you want the general in some ivory tower or on the frontlines?" Troops will fight harder if they see the general is with them, he said. "So get out there on the frontlines!"