I work in a colossal public university of some 80000 students and 10000 faculty. We have a critical mission: Together we face some of the world’s grand challenges. People entrust us with years of their lives to prepare them for their careers. Yet, despite a rapidly changing landscape, new societal needs, changing student demographics and technology, change is often painfully slow.
It may not shock you that a public, Spanish university would have its fair share of bureaucracy or that not every faculty member would work with the same urgency as, say, a biotech startup working on a cure for cancer. Still, I sometimes wonder, fancifully, Are we realizing our full potential? What would it take toget things moving here?!
When it comes to making things happen, there are many styles and techniques, of course. Leaders have different styles and processes, from asking nicely to barking commands. Some are consensus builders, some divide and pit employees against one another. These have been considered elsewhere. But what about if what I want is sheer capacity for dramatic change and pedal-to-the-metal engagement right now?
Warning: Don’t try this at home
The remedy I consider today is controversial. It is not clear that the benefits outweigh the costs, it doesn’t always work, and it can result in employee misery and organizational collapse. Proceed at your own risk. The solution I speak of? Let’s call it “Going Musk”.
Going Musk (v.): The process of creating an existential crisis in order to increase individual contributions and galvanize organizational performance, generally at the expense of individual well-being.
Let’s review a recent example of Going Musk, Musk’s management of Twitter. This has been summarized more completely elsewhere, but in a nutshell, Musk:
- Acquired the company after much ado
- Fired high-level staff
- Fired half of the rest of staff
- Told the rest to get hardcore
- Made a number of substantial and yes, controversial changes
- Repeatedly drew attention to Twitter’s societal value (free speech)
Unsurprisingly, these actions made some big ripples. Major advertisers on Twitter, a key source of revenue, announced a pause. Many former employees are suing the company. Many other employees resigned.
Things changed. Quickly. Despite the undeniably harsher conditions, the jury is still out on whether Going Musk will work at Twitter to make it profitable (and oh, yeah, save free speech and democracy or something). It was not profitable before. And while unconventional, disruptive, and perhaps obnoxious (read the tweets and judge for yourself), it is not out of character and not without some spectacular successes.
How to go Musk:
Going Musk contrasts with “Going Besos” , a more common management approach involving the creation of a false sense of crisis where any immediate threat is largely internal. Going Musk requires the threat to be real, even if you yourself create it.
You don’t have to own a company in order to Go Musk, although the scale of your threat will be limited to what you can potentially destroy, and the benefits to what you can control. You don’t even have to have a team, you could create a crisis just for yourself. You’ll need:
- Access to internal media
- Capacity to benefit from the crisis you generate
- Potential rewards that greatly outweigh the risks of failure
- A worthy cause
- Optional: A bedroll
- Find something that people believe in
Musk’s companies address big problems that lots of people care about. Electric cars, rockets to Mars, human brains to computers, solving traffic, and so forth. These are missions employees and the public alike can get behind.
- Create the crisis (raise the financial stake)
“We face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” Musk wrote in a letter to employees on Black Friday. For comparison, at its peak, NASA launched manned missions at a rate of about once every 3 months.
- Get Lean. Too Lean?
Musk cut 20% of staff after taking over Tesla, and has since made substantial cuts periodically. For those that remain, employees report long hours and a demanding environment, but also having the impression that anyone working for Musk is the best of the best. Nothing is sacred: Entire departments are gutted if not considered to be mission-critical.
- Get Hardcore
Musk now famously told his Twitter employees to work “extremely hardcore” or leave. Whether “super” or “ultra” or “extreme”, Musk wants his people to work and produce results. Former employees describe 2AM texts, 6AM conference calls, and of course, sleeping at the office.
- When it works, it works. But it’s not established that it always works or indeed, that it is needed.
- Defensive behavior
- Dysfunctional learning
- Risk of lawsuit
So… is it worth it?
If you are considering “Going Musk”, remember that, firstly, plenty of companies have been successful using other, more conventional approaches. You could try other ways to instill a sense of urgency first. Secondly, research shows that if you must Go Musk, you can reduce the backlash that Musk has faced by tending to the emotional side effects such a strategy will inevitably bring about.