SpaceX got off to an ignominious start. Its first three rocket launches all malfunctioned, nearly bankrupting Founder Elon Musk, who was reportedly so stressed he’d wake up from nightmares, screaming and in physical pain.
It was certainly an anxious time but even then, he could see that such an existential crisis was actually necessary for what he wanted to achieve. It was a prerequisite for the development of his core team. “Failure is an option here,” he told them. “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
Musk’s subsequent stratospheric success wasn’t just down to his mercurial genius, it was also a result of his insatiable obsession to create changemakers within his organisations.
Being a changemaker isn’t just about having clever ideas. Lots of people have clever ideas. What sets them apart is an ability to take the ideas, fine-tune them and use them to bring about real, lasting change. It might be that they improve society, alleviate suffering, influence governments, revolutionise an industry or create a new trend.
And while, in the business world, we’re accustomed to celebrating the change-making abilities of Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Jack Dorsey, it would be just as appropriate to consider how each of them ensured that innovation, risk-taking and, yes, failure could flourish.
Even the most ego-driven among them would be humble enough to realise that the bulk of the brilliant ideas they’ve benefited from had come from within their organisations. Whether they publicly acknowledged the minion in question is less certain.
More and more corporations are realising the importance of intrapreneurs – highly talented individuals empowered to drive and own radical transformation from within. Only when such employees are truly thriving can a company become a first-mover like Uber, DuPont and Spotify, or continually reinvent its offering like Apple or Amazon.
Musk understood that from the beginning. He hand-picked his senior executives at SpaceX based on their abilities to think outside the box, and later deployed a flat management structure at Tesla to force senior executives to be hands-on and take responsibility for big decisions, and also to let more junior staff problem-solve across more departments. Both his major companies became breeding grounds for improbable ideas that somehow became reality.
In a similar vein, DHL boosted its creativity beyond all expectation by restructuring its logistics operation to allow all staff members to try new ideas within their spheres and become agents of change. It suspected that all the best suggestions would come from outside the boardroom, as indeed was the case.
New Zealand recruitment agency Robert Half has identified key ways that CEOs can not only let changemakers thrive, but also motivate more cynical team members into challenging assumptions:
“Organisations need to create an environment that’s positive, supportive and encourages innovation.”
- Matt Friedman
What the list makes clear is that developing a culture of change-making within a company has to come from the top. And that CEOs aren’t solo artists – they front a band.
Spotify Founder Daniel Ek so dislikes the idea of taking sole credit for the streaming service’s success that he rarely gives interviews. “In almost all innovations, it’s the collaboration of the team that creates something. In a creative process that’s hard to capture,” he told The Flux Group Founder Robert Safian in 2018.
“What often happens, people simplify the process and put it on one person who then looks like they’re some sort of demigod, infallible, up until the moment when they’re not and then the whole world collapses.”
The CEO who has probably invested more in channelling new thinking and disruption within her staff is YouTube’s highly influential chief, Susan Wojcicki, a former Google executive and another proponent of the ‘you must fail to succeed’ philosophy. Her leadership style is entirely based on doing everything humanly possible to free up innovators to actually innovate.
It’s estimated that more than 90 per cent of Google’s revenue comes directly from initiatives that she and her teams introduced such as Google Analytics, AdSense, Ads and the acquisition of YouTube. She has always acknowledged and credited the people in her teams who were responsible for shifting mindsets to make them happen.
And those same mindset-shifting principles are just as relevant when applied to societal change. The likes of Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Colin Kaepernick and Jane Goodall had no authority, but they wielded power to open our eyes to injustice or inaction and brought tangible change.
Matt Friedman has spent decades fighting human trafficking across Asia. He’s CEO of The Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based collection of business leaders helping to combat the issue.
One of his biggest challenges has been changing the mindsets of governments and law enforcement agencies to raise awareness, reduce corruption, revise legislation and protect victims. The incredible success he’s had has been down to letting creative thinking and problem-solving thrive within his organisations.
He tells The CEO Magazine that there are four key ways that a leader can do this:
Another key factor for him is collaboration, which requires trust and shared purpose. “If feelings of accomplishment can be developed, joint ownership of the problem will often follow,” he says. “Organisations need to create an environment that’s positive, supportive and encourages innovation from an early stage of the project.”
The notion that all a company needs to do to stay fresh is crank up its research and development budget and organise a brainstorming weekend at a spa hotel for the C-suite is outdated. So is revering the billionaire business contrarians without recognising how they have harnessed creativity so effectively.
Companies like Microsoft and Apple actively recruit their changemakers and then give them the autonomy to do what they do best. Teamwork and empathy trump rigid hierarchies of command and control every time.
Musk learned early on that he needs free thinkers unencumbered by impossible odds to keep his dream of colonising Mars alive, and make sure he no longer wakes up from it screaming.